Chapter no 10

The Queen of the Damned

HEY met again at the edge of the redwood forest, their clothes tattered, their eyes tearing from the wind. Pandora stood to the right of Marius, Santino to the left. And from the

house across the clearing, Mael came towards them, a lanky figure almost loping over the mown grass.

Silently, he embraced Marius.

“Old friend,” Marius said. But his voice had no vitality. Exhausted, he looked past Mael towards the lighted windows of the house. He sensed a great hidden dwelling within the mountain behind the visible structure with its peaked and gabled roof.

And what lay there waiting for him? For all of them? If only he had the slightest spirit for it; if only he could recapture the smallest part of his own soul.

“I’m weary,” he said to Mael. “I’m sick from the journey. Let me rest here a moment longer. Then I’ll come.”

Marius did not despise the power to fly, as he knew Pandora did, nevertheless it invariably chastened him. He had been defenseless against it on this night of all nights; and he had now to feel the earth under him, to smell the forest, and to scan the distant house in a moment of uninterrupted quiet. His hair was tangled from the wind and still matted with dried blood. The simple gray wool jacket and pants he had taken from the ruins of his house barely gave him warmth. He brought the heavy black cloak close around him, not because the night here required it, but because he was still chilled and sore from the wind.

Mael appeared not to like his hesitation, but to accept it. Suspiciously he gazed at Pandora, whom he had never trusted, and then with open hostility he stared at Santino, who was busy brushing off his black garments and combing his fine, neatly trimmed black hair. For one second, their eyes met, Santino bristling with viciousness, then Mael turned away.

Marius stood still listening, thinking. He could feel the last bit of healing in his body; it rather amazed him that he was once again

whole. Even as mortals learn year by year that they are older and weaker, so immortals must learn that they are stronger than ever they imagined they would be. It maddened him at the moment.

Scarcely an hour had passed since he was helped from the icy pit by Santino and Pandora, and now it was as if he had never been there, crushed and helpless, for ten days and nights, visited again and again by the nightmares of the twins. Yet nothing could ever be as it had been.

The twins. The red-haired woman was inside the house waiting. Santino had told him this. Mael knew it too. But who was she? And why did he not want to know the answers? Why was this the blackest hour he had ever known? His body was fully healed, no doubt about it; but what was going to heal his soul?

Armand in this strange wooden house at the base of the mountain? Armand again after all this time? Santino had told him about Armand also, and that the others—Louis and Gabrielle—had also been spared.

Mael was studying him. “He’s waiting for you,” he said. “Your Amadeo.” It was respectful, not cynical or impatient.

And out of the great bank of memories that Marius carried forever with him, there came a long neglected moment, startling in its purity—Mael coming to the palazzo in Venice in the contented years of the fifteenth century, when Marius and Armand had known such happiness, and Mael seeing the mortal boy at work with the other apprentices on a mural which Marius had only lately left to their less competent hands. Strange how vivid, the smell of the egg tempera, the smell of the candles, and that familiar smell—not unpleasant now in remembering—which permeated all Venice, the smell of the rottenness of things, of the dark and putrid waters of the canals. “And so you would make that one?” Mael had asked with simple directness. “When it’s time,” Marius had said dismissively, “when it’s time.” Less than a year later, he had made his little blunder. “Come into my arms, young one, I can live without you no more.”

Marius stared at the distant house. My world trembles and I think of him, my Amadeo, my Armand. The emotions he felt were suddenly as bittersweet as music, the blended orchestral melodies of recent centuries, the tragic strains of Brahms or Shostakovich which he

had come to love.

But this was no time for cherishing this reunion. No time to feel the keen warmth of it, to be glad of it, and to say all the things to Armand that he so wanted to say.

Bitterness was something shallow compared to his present state of mind. Should have destroyed them, the Mother and the Father. Should have destroyed us all.

“Thank the gods,” Mael said, “that you did not.” “And why?” Marius demanded. “Tell me why?”

Pandora shuddered. He felt her arm come around his waist. And why did that make him so angry? He turned sharply to her; he wanted to strike her, push her away. But what he saw stopped him. She wasn’t even looking at him; and her expression was so distant, so soul weary that he felt his own exhaustion all the more heavily. He wanted to weep. The well-being of Pandora had always been crucial to his own survival. He did not need to be near her—better that he was not near her—but he had to know that she was somewhere, and continuing, and that they might meet again. What he saw now in her—had seen earlier—filled him with foreboding. If he felt bitterness, then Pandora felt despair.

“Come,” Santino said, “they’re waiting.” It was said with courtly politeness.

“I know,” Marius answered.

“Ah, what a trio we are!” Pandora whispered suddenly. She was spent, fragile, hungering for sleep and dreams, yet protectively she tightened her grip on Marius’s waist.

“I can walk unaided, thank you,” he said with uncharacteristic meanness, and to this one, the one he most loved.

“Walk, then,” she answered. And just for a second, he saw her old warmth, even a spark of her old humor. She gave him a little shove, and then started out alone towards the house.

Acid. His thoughts were acid as he followed. He could not be of use to these immortals. Yet he walked on with Mael and Santino into the light streaming from the windows beyond. The redwood forest receded into shadow; not a leaf moved. But the air was good here, warm here, full of fresh scents and without the sting of the north.

Armand. It made him want to weep.

Then he saw the woman appear in the doorway. A sylph with her long curly red hair catching the hallway light.

He did not stop, but surely he felt a little intelligent fear. Old as Akasha she was, certainly. Her pale eyebrows were all but faded into the radiance of her countenance. Her mouth had no color anymore. And her eyes . . . . Her eyes were not really her eyes. No, they had been taken from a mortal victim and they were already failing her. She could not see very well as she looked at him. Ah, the blinded twin from the dreams, she was. And she felt pain now in the delicate nerves connected to the stolen eyes.

Pandora stopped at the edge of the steps.

Marius went past her and up onto the porch. He stood before the red-haired woman, marveling at her height—she was as tall as he was—and at the fine symmetry of her masklike face. She wore a flowing gown of black wool with a high neck and full dagged sleeves. In long loose gores the cloth fell from a slender girdle of braided black cord just beneath her small breasts. A lovely garment really. It made her face seem all the more radiant and detached from everything around it, a mask with the light behind it, glowing in a frame of red hair.

But there was a great deal more to marvel at than these simple attributes which she might have possessed in one form or another six thousand years ago. The woman’s vigor astonished him. It gave her an air of infinite flexibility and overwhelming menace. Was she the true immortal?—the one who had never slept, never gone silent, never been released by madness? One who had walked with a rational mind and measured steps through all the millennia since she had been born?

She let him know, for what it was worth, that this was exactly what she was.

He could see her immeasurable strength as if it were incandescent light; yet he could sense an immediate informality, the immediate receptivity of a clever mind.

How to read her expression, however. How to know what she really felt.

A deep, soft femininity emanated from her, no less mysterious

than anything else about her, a tender vulnerability that he associated exclusively with women though now and then he found it in a very young man. In the dreams, her face had evinced this tenderness; now it was something invisible but no less real. At another time it would have charmed him; now he only took note of it, as he noted her gilded fingernails, so beautifully tapered, and the jeweled rings she wore.

“All those years you knew of me,” he said politely, speaking in the old Latin. “You knew I kept the Mother and the Father. Why didn’t you come to me? Why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

She considered for a long moment before answering, her eyes moving back and forth suddenly over the others who drew close to him now.

Santino was terrified of this woman, though he knew her very well. And Mael was afraid of her too, though perhaps a little less. In fact, it seemed that Mael loved her and was bound to her in some subservient way. As for Pandora, she was merely apprehensive. She drew even closer to Marius as if to stand with him, regardless of what he meant to do.

“Yes, I knew of you,” the woman said suddenly. She spoke English in the modern fashion. But it was the unmistakable voice of the twin in the dream, the blind twin who had cried out the name of her mute sister, Mekare, as both had been shut up in stone coffins by the angry mob.

Our voices never really change, Marius thought. The voice was young, pretty. It had a reticent softness as she spoke again.

“I might have destroyed your shrine if I had come,” she said. “I might have buried the King and the Queen beneath the sea. I might even have destroyed them, and so doing, destroyed all of us. And this I didn’t want to do. And so I did nothing. What would you have had me do? I couldn’t take your burden from you. I couldn’t help you. So I did not come.”

It was a better answer than he had expected. It was not impossible to like this creature. On the other hand, this was merely the beginning. And her answer—it wasn’t the whole truth.

“No?” she asked him. Her face revealed a tracery of subtle lines for an instant, the glimpse of something that had once been human. “What is the whole truth?” she asked. “That I owed you nothing,

least of all the knowledge of my existence and that you are impertinent to suggest that I should have made myself known to you? I have seen a thousand like you. I know when you come into being. I know when you perish. What are you to me? We come together now because we have to. We are in danger. All living things are in danger! And maybe when this is finished we will love each other and respect each other. And maybe not. Maybe we’ll all be dead.”

“Perhaps so,” he said quietly. He couldn’t help smiling. She was right. And he liked her manner, the bone-hard way in which she spoke.

It had been his experience that all immortals were irrevocably stamped by the age in which they were born. And so it was true, also, of even this ancient one, whose words had a savage simplicity, though the timbre of the voice had been soft.

“I’m not myself,” he added hesitantly. “I haven’t survived all this as well as I should have survived it. My body’s healed—the old miracle.” He sneered. “But I don’t understand my present view of things. The bitterness, the utter—” He stopped.

“The utter darkness,” she said.

“Yes. Never has life itself seemed so senseless,” he added. “I don’t mean for us. I mean—to use your phrase—for all living things. It’s a joke, isn’t it? Consciousness, it’s a kind of joke.”

“No,” she said. “That’s not so.”

“I disagree with you. Will you patronize me? Tell me now how many thousands of years you’ve lived before I was born? How much you know that I don’t know?” He thought again of his imprisonment, the ice hurting him, the pain shooting through his limbs. He thought of the immortal voices that had answered him; the rescuers who had moved towards him, only to be caught one by one by Akasha’s fire. He had heard them die, if he had not seen them! And what had sleep meant for him? The dreams of the twins.

She reached out suddenly and caught his right hand gently in both of hers. It was rather like being held in the maw of a machine; and though Marius had inflicted that very impression upon many young ones himself over the years, he had yet to feel such overpowering strength himself.

“Marius, we need you now,” she said warmly, her eyes glittering for an instant in the yellow light that poured out of the door behind her, and out of the windows to the right and to the left.

“For the love of heaven, why?”

“Don’t jest,” she answered. “Come into the house. We must talk while we have time.”

“About what?” he insisted. “About why the Mother has allowed us to live? I know the answer to that question. It makes me laugh. You she cannot kill, obviously, and we . . . we are spared because Lestat wants it. You realize this, don’t you? Two thousand years I cared for her, protected her, worshiped her, and she has spared me now on account of her love for a two-hundred-year-old fledgling named Lestat.”

“Don’t be so sure of it!” Santino said suddenly.

“No,” the woman said. “It’s not her only reason. But there are many things we must consider—”

“I know you’re right.” he said. “But I haven’t the spirit for it. My illusions are gone, you see, and I didn’t even know they were illusions. I thought I had attained such wisdom! It was my principal source of pride. I was with the eternal things. Then, when I saw her standing there in the shrine, I knew that all my deepest hopes and dreams had come true! She was alive inside that body. Alive, while I played the acolyte, the slave, the eternal guardian of the tomb!”

But why try to explain it? Her vicious smile, her mocking words to him, the ice falling. The cold darkness afterwards and the twins. Ah, yes, the twins. That was at the heart of it as much as anything else, and it occurred to him suddenly that the dreams had cast a spell on him. He should have questioned this before now. He looked at her, and the dreams seemed to surround her suddenly, to take her out of the moment back to those stark times. He saw sunlight; he saw the dead body of the mother; he saw the twins poised above the body. So many questions . . .

“But what have these dreams to do with this catastrophe!” he demanded suddenly. He had been so defenseless against those endless dreams.

The woman looked at him for a long moment before answering. “This I will tell you, insofar as I know. But you must calm yourself.

It’s as if you’ve got your youth back, and what a curse it must be.” He laughed. “I was never young. But what do you mean by this?” “You rant and rave. And I can’t console you.”

“And you would if you could?” “Yes.”

He laughed softly.

But very gracefully she opened her arms to him. The gesture shocked him, not because it was extraordinary but because he had seen her so often go to embrace her sister in this manner in the dreams. “My name is Maharet,” she said. “Call me by my name and put away your distrust. Come into my house.”

She leant forward, her hands touching the sides of his face as she kissed him on the cheek. Her red hair touched his skin and the sensation confused him. The perfume rising from her clothes confused him—the faint Oriental scent that made him think of incense, which always made him think of the shrine.

“Maharet,” he said angrily. “If I am needed, why didn’t you come for me when I lay in that pit of ice? Could she have stopped you?”

“Marius, I have come,” she said. “And you are here now with us.” She released him, and let her hands fall, gracefully clasped before her skirts. “Do you think I had nothing to do during these nights when all our kind were being destroyed? To the left and right of me, the world over, she slew those I had loved or known. I could not be here and there to protect these victims. Cries reached my ears from every corner of the earth. And I had my own quest, my own sorrow—” Abruptly she stopped.

A faint carnal blush came over her; in a warm flash the normal expressive lines of her face returned. She was in pain, both physical and mental, and her eyes were clouding with thin blood tears. Such a strange thing, the fragility of the eyes in the indestructible body. And the suffering emanating from her—he could not bear it—it was like the dreams themselves. He saw a great riff of images, vivid yet wholly different. And quite suddenly he realized—

“You aren’t the one who sent the dreams to us!” he whispered. “You are not the source.” She didn’t answer.

“Ye gods, where is your sister! What does all this mean?”

There was a subtle recoiling, as if he’d struck her heart. She tried to veil her mind from him; but he felt the unquenchable pain. In silence, she stared at him, taking in all of his face and figure slowly and obviously, as if to let him know that he had unforgivably transgressed.

He could feel the fear coming from Mael and Santino, who dared to say nothing. Pandora drew even closer to him and gave him a little warning signal as she clasped his hand.

Why had he spoken so brutally, so impatiently? My quest, my own sorrow . . . . But damn it all!

He watched her close her eyes, and press her fingers tenderly to her eyelids as if she would make the ache in her eyes go away, but she could not.

“Maharet,” he said with a soft, honest sigh. “We’re in a war and we stand about on the battlefield speaking harsh words to each other. I am the worst offender. I only want to understand.”

She looked up at him, her head still bowed, her hand hovering before her face. And the look was fierce, almost malicious. Yet he found himself staring senselessly at the delicate curve of her fingers, at the gilded nails and the ruby and emerald rings which flashed suddenly as if sparked with electric light.

The most errant and awful thought came to him, that if he didn’t stop being so damned stupid he might never see Armand. She might drive him out of here or worse. . . . And he wanted so—before it was over—to see Armand.

“You come in now, Marius,” she said suddenly, her voice polite, forgiving. “You come with me, and be reunited with your old child, and then we’ll gather with the others who have the same questions. We will begin.”

“Yes, my old child. . . . ” he murmured. He felt the longing for Armand again like music, like Bartók’s violin phrases played in a remote and safe place where there was all the time in the world to hear. Yet he hated her; he hated all of them. He hated himself. The other twin, where was the other twin? Flashes of heated jungle. Flashes of the vines torn and the saplings breaking underfoot. He tried to reason, but he couldn’t. Hatred poisoned him.

Many a time he had witnessed this black denial of life in mortals.

He had heard the wisest of them say, “Life is not worth it,” and he had never fathomed it; well, he understood it now.

Vaguely he knew she had turned to those around him. She was welcoming Santino and Pandora into the house.

As if in a trance, he saw her turn to lead the way. Her hair was so long it fell to her waist in back, a great mass of soft red curls. And he felt the urge to touch it, see if it was as soft as it looked. How positively remarkable that he could be distracted by something lovely at this moment, something impersonal, and that it could make him feel all right; as if nothing had happened; as if the world were good. He beheld the shrine intact again; the shrine at the center of his world. Ah, the idiot human brain, he thought, how it seizes whatever it can. And to think Armand was waiting, so near . . . .

She led them through a series of large, sparely furnished rooms. The place for all its openness had the air of a citadel; the ceiling beams were enormous; the fireplaces, each with a roaring blaze, were no more than open stone hearths.

So like the old meeting halls of Europe in the dark times, when the Roman roads had fallen to ruin and the Latin tongue had been forgotten, and the old warrior tribes had risen again. The Celts had been triumphant in the end really. They were the ones who conquered Europe; its feudal castles were no more than Celtic encampments; even in the modern states, the Celtic superstitions, more than Roman reason, lived on.

But the appointments of this place hearkened back to even earlier times. Men and women had lived in cities built like this before the invention of writing; in rooms of plaster and wood; among things woven, or hammered by hand.

He rather liked it; ah, the idiot brain again, he thought, that he could like something at such a time. But the places built by immortals always intrigued him. And this one was a place to study slowly, to come to know over a great span of time.

Now they passed through a steel door and into the mountain itself. The smell of the raw earth enclosed him. Yet they walked in new metal corridors, with walls of tin. He could hear the generators, the computers, all the sweet humming electrical sounds that had made him feel so safe in his own house.

Up an iron stairs they went. It doubled back upon itself again and again as Maharet led them higher and higher. Now roughened walls revealed the innards of the mountain, its deep veins of colored clay and rock. Tiny ferns grew here; but where did the light come from? A skylight high above. Little portal to heaven. He glanced up thankfully at the bare glimmer of blue light.

Finally they emerged on a broad landing and entered a small darkened room. A door lay open to a much larger chamber where the others waited; but all Marius could see for the moment was the bright shock of distant firelight, and it made him turn his eyes away.

Someone was waiting here in this little room for him, someone whose presence he had been unable, except by the most ordinary means, to detect. A figure who stood behind him now. And as Maharet went on into the large room, taking Pandora and Santino and Mael with her, he understood what was about to happen. To brace himself he took a slow breath and closed his eyes.

How trivial all his bitterness seemed; he thought of this one whose existence had been for centuries unbroken suffering; whose youth with all its needs had been rendered truly eternal; this one whom he had failed to save, or to perfect. How many times over the years had he dreamed of such a reunion, and he had never had the courage for it; and now on this battlefield, in this time of ruin and upheaval, they were at last to meet.

“My love,” he whispered. He felt himself chastened suddenly as he had been earlier when he had flown up and up over the snowy wastes past the realm of the indifferent clouds. Never had he spoken words more heartfelt. “My beautiful Amadeo,” he said.

And reaching out he felt the touch of Armand’s hand.

Supple still this unnatural flesh, supple as if it were human, and cool and so soft. He couldn’t help himself now. He was weeping. He opened his eyes to see the boyish figure standing before him. Oh, such an expression. So accepting, so yielding. Then he opened his arms.

Centuries ago in a palazzo in Venice, he had tried to capture in imperishable pigment the quality of this love. What had been its lesson? That in all the world no two souls contain the same secret, the same gift of devotion or abandon; that in a common child, a

wounded child, he had found a blending of sadness and simple grace that would forever break his heart? This one had understood him! This one had loved him as no other ever had.

Through his tears he saw no recrimination for the grand experiment that had gone wrong. He saw the face that he had painted, now darkened slightly with the thing we naively call wisdom; and he saw the same love he had counted upon so totally in those lost nights.

If only there were time, time to seek the quiet of the forest—some warm, secluded place among the soaring redwoods—and there talk together by the hour through long unhurried nights. But the others waited; and so these moments were all the more precious, and all the more sad.

He tightened his arms around Armand. He kissed Armand’s lips, and his long loose vagabond hair. He ran his hand covetously over Armand’s shoulders. He looked at the slim white hand he held in his own. Every detail he had sought to preserve forever on canvas; every detail he had certainly preserved in death.

“They’re waiting, aren’t they?” he asked. “They won’t give us more than a few moments now.”

Without judgment, Armand nodded. In a low, barely audible voice, he said, “It’s enough. I always knew that we would meet again.” Oh, the memories that the timbre of the voice brought back. The palazzo with its coffered ceilings, beds draped in red velvet. The figure of this boy rushing up the marble staircase, his face flushed from the winter wind off the Adriatic, his brown eyes on fire. “Even in moments of the greatest jeopardy,” the voice continued, “I knew we would meet before I would be free to die.”

“Free to die?” Marius responded. “We are always free to die, aren’t we? What we must have now is the courage to do it, if indeed it is the right thing to do.”

Armand appeared to think on this for a moment. And the soft distance that crept into his face brought back the sadness again to Marius. “Yes, that’s true,” he said.

“I love you,” Marius whispered suddenly, passionately as a mortal man might. “I have always loved you. I wish that I could believe in anything other than love at this moment; but I can’t.”

Some small sound interrupted them. Maharet had come to the door.

Marius slipped his arm around Armand’s shoulder. There was one final moment of silence and understanding between them. And then they followed Maharet into an immense mountaintop room.

ALL of glass it was, except for the wall behind him, and the distant iron chimney that hung from the ceiling above the blazing fire. No other light here save the blaze, and above and beyond, the sharp tips of the monstrous redwoods, and the bland Pacific sky with its vaporous clouds and tiny cowardly stars.

But it was beautiful still, wasn’t it? Even if it was not the sky over the Bay of Naples, or seen from the flank of Annapurna or from a vessel cast adrift in the middle of the blackened sea. The mere sweep of it was beautiful, and to think that only moments ago he had been high up there, drifting in the darkness, seen only by his fellow travelers and by the stars themselves. The joy came back to him again as it had when he looked at Maharet’s red hair. No sorrow as when he thought of Armand beside him; just joy, impersonal and transcendent. A reason to remain alive.

It occurred to him suddenly that he wasn’t very good at bitterness or regret, that he didn’t have the stamina for them, and if he was to recapture his dignity, he had better shape up fast.

A little laugh greeted him, friendly, unobtrusive; a little drunken maybe, the laugh of a fledgling who lacked common sense. He smiled in acknowledgment, darting a glance at the amused one, Daniel. Daniel the anonymous “boy” of Interview with the Vampire. It hit him quickly that this was Armand’s child, the only child Armand had ever made. A good start on the Devil’s Road this creature had, this exuberant and intoxicated being, strengthened with all that Armand had to give.

Quickly he surveyed the others who were gathered around the oval table.

To his right and some distance away, there was Gabrielle, with her blond hair in a braid down her back and her eyes full of undisguised anguish; and beside her, Louis, unguarded and passive as always, staring at Marius mutely as if in scientific inquiry or worship or both; then came his beloved Pandora, her rippling

brown hair free over her shoulders and still speckled with the tiny sparkling droplets of melted frost. Santino sat to her right, finally, looking composed once more, all the dirt gone from his finely cut black velvet clothes.

On his left sat Khayman, another ancient one, who gave his name silently and freely, a horrifying being, actually, with a face even smoother than that of Maharet. Marius found he couldn’t take his eyes off this one. Never had the faces of the Mother and the Father so startled him, though they too had had these black eyes and jet black hair. It was the smile, wasn’t it? The open, affable expression fixed there in spite of all the efforts of time to wash it away. The creature looked like a mystic or a saint, yet he was a savage killer. Recent feasts of human blood had softened his skin just a little, and given a faint blush to his cheeks.

Mael, shaggy and unkempt as always, had taken the chair to Khayman’s left. And after him came another old one, Eric, past three thousand years by Marius’s reckoning, gaunt and deceptively fragile in appearance, perhaps thirty when he died. His soft brown eyes regarded Marius thoughtfully. His handmade clothes were like exquisite replicas of the store-bought goods men of business wore today.

But what was this other being? The one who sat to the right of Maharet, who stood directly opposite Marius at the far end? Now, this one truly gave him a shock. The other twin was his first rash conjecture as he stared at her green eyes and her coppery red hair.

But this being had been alive yesterday, surely. And he could find no explanation for her strength, her frigid whiteness; the piercing manner in which she stared at him; and the overwhelming telepathic power that emanated from her, a cascade of dark and finely delineated images which she seemed unable to control. She was seeing with uncanny accuracy the painting he had done centuries ago of his Amadeo, surrounded by black-winged angels as he knelt in prayer. A chill passed over Marius.

“In the crypt of the Talamasca,” he whispered. “My painting?” He laughed, rudely, venomously. “And so it’s there!”

The creature was frightened; she hadn’t meant to reveal her thoughts. Protective of the Talamasca, and hopelessly confused, she shrank back into herself. Her body seemed to grow smaller and yet

to redouble its power. A monster. A monster with green eyes and delicate bones. Born yesterday, yes, exactly as he had figured it; there was living tissue in her; and suddenly he understood all about her. This one, named Jesse, had been made by Maharet. This one was an actual human descendant of the woman; and now she had become the fledgling of her ancient mother. The scope of it astonished him and frightened him slightly. The blood racing through the young one’s veins had a potency that was unimaginable to Marius. She was absolutely without thirst; yet she wasn’t even really dead.

But he must stop this, this merciless and rummaging appraisal. They were, after all, waiting for him. Yet he could not help but wonder where in God’s name were his own mortal descendants, spawn of the nephews and nieces he had so loved when he was alive? For a few hundred years, true, he had followed their progress; but finally, he could no longer recognize them; he could no longer recognize Rome itself. And he had let it all go into darkness, as Rome had passed into darkness. Yet surely there were those walking the earth today who had that old family blood in their veins.

He continued to stare at the red-haired young one. How she resembled her great mother; tall, yet frail of bone, beautiful yet severe. Some great secret here, something to do with the lineage, the family. . . . She wore soft dark clothes rather similar to those of the ancient one; her hands were immaculate; she wore no scent or paint.

They were all of them magnificent in their own way. The tall heavily built Santino was elegant in his priestly black, with his lustrous black eyes and a sensuous mouth. Even the unkempt Mael had a savage and overpowering presence as he glowered at the ancient woman with an obvious mixture of love and hate. Armand’s angelic face was beyond description; and the boy Daniel, a vision with his ashen hair and gleaming violet eyes.

Was nobody ugly ever given immortality? Or did the dark magic simply make beauty out of whatever sacrifice was thrown into the blaze? But Gabrielle had been a lovely thing in life surely, with all her son’s courage and none of his impetuosity, and Louis, ah, well, Louis of course had been picked for the exquisite bones of his face, for the depth of his green eyes. He had been picked for the

inveterate attitude of somber appreciation that he revealed now. He looked like a human being lost among them, his face softened with color and feeling; his body curiously defenseless; his eyes wondering and sad. Even Khayman had an undeniable perfection of face and form, horrifying as the total effect had come to be.

As for Pandora, he saw her alive and mortal when he looked at her, he saw the eager innocent woman who had come to him so many eons ago in the ink-black nighttime streets of Antioch, begging to be made immortal, not the remote and melancholy being who sat so still now in her simple biblical robes, staring through the glass wall opposite her at the fading galaxy beyond the thickening clouds.

Even Eric, bleached by the centuries and faintly radiant, retained, as Maharet did, an air of great human feeling, made all the more appealing by a beguiling androgynous grace.

The fact was, Marius had never laid eyes on such an assemblage

—a gathering of immortals of all ages from the newborn to the most ancient; and each endowed with immeasurable powers and weaknesses, even to the delirious young man whom Armand had skillfully created with all the unspent virtue of his virgin blood. Marius doubted that such a “coven” had ever come together before.

And how did he fit into the picture, he who had been the eldest of his own carefully controlled universe in which the ancients had been silent gods? The winds had cleansed him of the dried blood that had clung to his face and shoulder-length hair. His long black cloak was damp from the snows from which he’d come. And as he approached the table, as he waited belligerently for Maharet to tell him he might be seated, he fancied he looked as much the monster as the others did, his blue eyes surely cold with the animosity that was burning him from within.

“Please,” she said to him graciously. She gestured to the empty wooden chair before him, a place of honor obviously, at the foot of the table; that is, if one conceded that she stood at the head.

Comfortable it was, not like so much modern furniture. Its curved back felt good to him as he seated himself, and he could rest his hand on the arm, that was good, too. Armand took the empty chair to his right.

Maharet seated herself without a sound. She rested her hands

with fingers folded on the polished wood before her. She bowed her head as if collecting her thoughts to begin.

“Are we all that is left?” Marius asked. “Other than the Queen and the brat prince and—” He paused.

A ripple of silent confusion passed through the others. The mute twin, where was she? What was the mystery?

“Yes,” Maharet answered soberly. “Other than the Queen, and the brat prince, and my sister. Yes, we are the only ones left. Or the only ones left who count.”

She paused as if to let her words have their full effect. Her eyes gently took in the complete assembly.

“Far off,” she said, “there may be others—old ones who choose to remain apart. Or those she hunts still, who are doomed. But we are what remains in terms of destiny or decision. Or intent.”

“And my son,” Gabrielle said. Her voice was sharp, full of emotion, and subtle disregard for those present. “Will none of you tell me what she’s done with him and where he is?” She looked from the woman to Marius, fearlessly and desperately. “Surely you have the power to know where he is.”

Her resemblance to Lestat touched Marius. It was from this one that Lestat had drawn his strength, without doubt. But there was a coldness in her that Lestat would never understand.

“He’s with her, as I’ve already told you,” Khayman said, his voice deep and unhurried. “But beyond that she doesn’t let us know.”

Gabrielle did not believe it, obviously. There was a pulling away in her, a desire to leave here, to go off alone. Nothing could have forced the others away from the table. But this one had made no such commitment to the meeting, it was clear.

“Allow me to explain this,” Maharet said, “because it’s of the utmost importance. The Mother is skillful at cloaking herself, of course. But we of the early centuries have never been able to communicate silently with the Mother and the Father or with each other. We are all simply too close to the source of the power that makes us what we are. We are deaf and blind to each other’s minds just as master and fledgling are among you. Only as time passed and more and more blood drinkers were created did they acquire the power to communicate silently with each other as we have done

with mortals all along.”

“Then Akasha couldn’t find you,” Marius said, “you or Khayman

—if you weren’t with us.”

“That’s so. She must see us through your minds or not at all. And so we must see her through the minds of others. Except of course for a certain sound we hear now and then on the approach of the powerful, a sound that has to do with a great exertion of energy, and with breath and blood.”

“Yes, that sound,” Daniel murmured softly. “That awful relentless sound.”

“But is there nowhere we can hide from her?” Eric asked. “Those of us she can hear and see?” It was a young man’s voice, of course, and with a heavy undefinable accent, each word rather beautifully intoned.

“You know there isn’t,” Maharet answered with explicit patience. “But we waste time talking of hiding. You are here either because she cannot kill you or she chooses not to. And so be it. We must go on.”

“Or she hasn’t finished,” Eric said disgustedly. “She hasn’t made up her infernal mind on the matter of who shall die and who shall live!”

“I think you are safe here,” Khayman said. “She had her chance with everyone present, did she not?”

But that was just it, Marius realized. It was not at all clear that the Mother had had her chance with Eric, Eric who traveled, apparently, in the company of Maharet. Eric’s eyes locked on Maharet. There was some quick silent exchange but it wasn’t telepathic. What came clear to Marius was that Maharet had made Eric, and neither knew for certain whether Eric was too strong now for the Mother. Maharet was pleading for calm.

“But Lestat, you can read his mind, can’t you?” Gabrielle said. “Can’t you discover them both through him?”

“Not even I can always cover a pure and enormous distance,” Maharet answered. “If there were other blood drinkers left who could pick up Lestat’s thoughts and relay them to me, well, then of course I could find him in an instant. But in the main, those blood drinkers are no more. And Lestat has always been good at cloaking

his presence; it’s natural to him. It’s always that way with the strong ones, the ones who are self-sufficient and aggressive. Wherever he is now, he instinctively shuts us out.”

“She’s taken him,” Khayman said. He reached across the table and laid his hand on Gabrielle’s hand. “She’ll reveal everything to us when she is ready. And if she chooses to harm Lestat in the meantime there is absolutely nothing that any of us can do.”

Marius almost laughed. It seemed these ancient ones thought statements of absolute truth were a comfort; what a curious combination of vitality and passivity they were. Had it been so at the dawn of recorded history? When people sensed the inevitable, they stood stock-still and accepted it? It was difficult for him to grasp.

“The Mother won’t harm Lestat,” he said to Gabrielle, to all of them. “She loves him. And at its core it’s a common kind of love. She won’t harm him because she doesn’t want to harm herself. And she knows all his tricks, I’ll wager, just as we know them. He won’t be able to provoke her, though he’s probably foolish enough to try.”

Gabrielle gave a little nod at that with a trace of a sad smile. It was her considered opinion that Lestat could provoke anyone, finally, given enough time and opportunity; but she let it pass.

She was neither consoled nor resigned. She sat back in the wooden chair and stared past them as if they no longer existed. She felt no allegiance to this group; she felt no allegiance to anyone but Lestat.

“All right then,” she said coldly. “Answer the crucial question. If I destroy this monster who’s taken my son, do we all die?”

“How the hell are you going to destroy her?” Daniel asked in amazement.

Eric sneered.

She glanced at Daniel dismissively. Eric she ignored. She looked at Maharet. “Well, is the old myth true? If I waste this bitch, to use the vernacular, do I waste the rest of us too?”

There was faint laughter in the gathering. Marius shook his head.

But Maharet gave a little smile of acknowledgment as she nodded:

“Yes. It was tried in the earlier times. It was tried by many a fool who didn’t believe it. The spirit who inhabits her animates us all.

Destroy the host, you destroy the power. The young die first; the old wither slowly; the eldest perhaps would go last. But she is the Queen of the Damned, and the Damned can’t live without her. Enkil was only her consort, and that is why it does not matter now that she has slain him and drunk his blood to the last drop.”

“The Queen of the Damned.” Marius whispered it aloud softly. There had been a strange inflection when Maharet had said it, as if memories had stirred in her, painful and awful, and undimmed by time. Undimmed as the dreams were undimmed. Again he had a sense of the starkness and severity of these ancient beings, for whom language perhaps, and all the thoughts governed by it, had not been needlessly complex.

“Gabrielle,” Khayman said, pronouncing the name exquisitely, “we cannot help Lestat. We must use this time to make a plan.” He turned to Maharet. “The dreams, Maharet. Why have the dreams come to us now? This is what we all want to know.”

There was a protracted silence. All present had known, in some form, these dreams. Only lightly had they touched Gabrielle and Louis, so lightly in fact that Gabrielle had, before this night, given no thought to them, and Louis, frightened by Lestat, had pushed them out of his mind. Even Pandora, who confessed no personal knowledge of them, had told Marius of Azim’s warning. Santino had called them horrid trances from which he couldn’t escape.

Marius knew now that they had been a noxious spell for the young ones, Jesse and Daniel, almost as cruel as they had been for him.

Yet Maharet did not respond. The pain in her eyes had intensified; Marius felt it like a soundless vibration. He felt the spasms in the tiny nerves.

He bent forward slightly, folding his hands before him on the table.

“Maharet,” he said. “Your sister is sending the dreams. Isn’t this so?”

No answer.

“Where is Mekare?” he pushed. Silence again.

He felt the pain in her. And he was sorry, very sorry once more

for the bluntness of his speech. But if he was to be of use here, he must push things to a conclusion. He thought of Akasha in the shrine again, though why he didn’t know. He thought of the smile on her face. He thought of Lestat—protectively, desperately. But Lestat was just a symbol now. A symbol of himself. Of them all.

Maharet was looking at him in the strangest way, as if he were a mystery to her. She looked at the others. Finally she spoke:

“You witnessed our separation,” she said quietly. “All of you. You saw it in the dreams. You saw the mob surround me and my sister; you saw them force us apart; in stone coffins they placed us, Mekare unable to cry out to me because they had cut out her tongue, and I unable to see her for the last time because they had taken my eyes.

“But I saw through the minds of those who hurt us. I knew it was to the seashores that we were being taken. Mekare to the west; and I to the east.

“Ten nights I drifted on the raft of pitch and logs, entombed alive in the stone coffin. And finally when the raft sank and the water lifted the stone lid, I was free. Blind, ravenous, I swam ashore and stole from the first poor mortal I encountered the eyes to see and the blood to live.

“But Mekare? Into the great western ocean she had been cast— the waters that ran to the end of the world.

“Yet from that first night on I searched for her; I searched through Europe, through Asia, through the southern jungles and the frozen lands of the north. Century after century I searched, finally crossing the western ocean when mortals did to take my quest to the New World as well.

“I never found my sister. I never found a mortal or immortal who had set eyes upon her or heard her name. Then in this century, in the years after the second great war, in the high mountain jungles of Peru, the indisputable evidence of my sister’s presence was discovered by a lone archaeologist on the walls of a shallow cave— pictures my sister had created—of stick figures and crude pigment which told the tale of our lives together, the sufferings you all know.

“But six thousand years ago these drawings had been carved into the stone. And six thousand years ago my sister had been taken

from me. No other evidence of her existence was ever found.

“Yet I have never abandoned the hope of finding my sister. I have always known, as only a twin might, that she walks this earth still, that I am not here alone.

“And now, within these last ten nights, I have, for the first time, proof that my sister is still with me. It has come to me through the dreams.

“These are Mekare’s thoughts; Mekare’s images; Mekare’s rancor and pain.”

Silence. All eyes were fixed on her. Marius was quietly stunned. He feared to be the one to speak again, but this was worse than he had imagined and the implications were now entirely clear.

The origin of these dreams was almost certainly not a conscious survivor of the millennia; rather the visions had—very possibly— come from one who had no more mind now than an animal in whom memory is a spur to action which the animal does not question or understand. It would explain their clarity; it would explain their repetition.

And the flashes he had seen of something moving through the jungles, this was Mekare herself.

“Yes,” Maharet said immediately. “ ‘In the jungles. Walking,’ ” she whispered. “The words of the dying archaeologist, scribbled on a piece of paper and left for me to find when I came. ‘In the jungles. Walking.’ But where?”

It was Louis who broke the silence.

“Then the dreams may not be a deliberate message,” he said, his words marked by a slight French accent. “They may simply be the outpouring of a tortured soul.”

“No. They are a message,” Khayman said. “They are a warning.

They are meant for all of us, and for the Mother as well.”

“But how can you say this?” Gabrielle asked him. “We don’t know what her mind is now, or that she even knows that we are here.”

“You don’t know the whole story,” Khayman said. “I know it.

Maharet will tell it.” He looked to Maharet.

“I saw her,” Jesse said unobtrusively, her voice tentative as she looked at Maharet. “She’s crossed a great river; she’s coming. I saw

her! No, that’s not right. I saw as if I were she.” “Yes,” Marius answered. “Through her eyes!”

“I saw her red hair when I looked down,” Jesse said. “I saw the jungle giving way with each step.”

“The dreams must be a communication,” Mael said with sudden impatience. “For why else would the message be so strong? Our private thoughts don’t carry such power. She raises her voice; she wants someone or something to know what she is thinking ”

“Or she is obsessed and acting upon that obsession,” Marius answered. “And moving towards a certain goal.” He paused. “To be united with you, her sister! What else could she possibly want?”

“No,” Khayman said. “That is not her goal.” Again he looked at Maharet. “She has a promise to keep to the Mother, and that is what the dreams mean.”

Maharet studied him for a moment in silence; it seemed this was almost beyond her endurance, this discussion of her sister, yet she fortified herself silently for the ordeal that lay ahead.

“We were there in the beginning,” Khayman said. “We were the first children of the Mother, and in these dreams lies the story of how it began.”

“Then you must tell us . . . all of it,” Marius said as gently as he could.

“Yes.” Maharet sighed. “And I will.” She looked at each of them in turn and then back to Jesse. “I must tell you the whole story,” she said, “so that you can understand what we may be powerless to avert. You see, this is not merely the story of the beginning. It may be the story of the end as well.” She sighed suddenly as if the prospect were too much for her. “Our world has never seen such upheaval,” she said, looking at Marius. “Lestat’s music, the rising of the Mother, so much death.”

She looked down for a moment, as if collecting herself again for the effort. And then she glanced at Khayman and at Jesse, who were the ones she most loved.

“I have never told it before,” she said as if pleading for indulgence. “It has for me now the hard purity of mythology—those times when I was alive. When I could still see the sun. But in this mythology is rooted all the truths that I know. And if we go back,

we may find the future, and the means to change it. The very least that we can do is seek to understand.”

A hush fell. All waited with respectful patience for her to begin. “In the beginning,” she said, “we were witches, my sister and I.

We talked to the spirits and the spirits loved us. Until she sent her soldiers into our land.”

You'll Also Like