Chapter no 15

The Queen of the Damned

WE FOUND the palace the same as we remembered it, or perhaps a little more lavish, with more booty from conquered lands. More gold drapery, and even more vivid

paintings; and twice as many slaves about, as if they were mere ornaments, their lean naked bodies hung with gold and jewels.

“To a royal cell we were now committed, with graceful chairs and tables, and a fine carpet, and dishes of meat and fish to eat.

“Then at sunset, we heard cheers as the King and the Queen appeared in the palace; all the court went to bow to them, singing anthems to the beauty of their pale skin and their shimmering hair; and to the bodies that had miraculously healed after the assault of the conspirators; all the palace echoed with these hymns of praise.

“But when this little spectacle was finished, we were taken into the bedchamber of the royal couple, and for the first time, by the small light of distant lamps, we beheld the transformation with our own eyes.

“We saw two pale yet magnificent beings, resembling in all particulars what they had been when they were alive; but there was an eerie luminescence surrounding them; their skin was no longer skin. And their minds were no longer entirely their minds. Yet gorgeous they were. As you can well imagine, all of you. Oh, yes, gorgeous, as though the moon had come down from heaven and fashioned them with its light. Amid their dazzling gold furniture they stood, draped in finery, and staring at us with eyes that gleamed like obsidian. And then, with a wholly different voice, a voice softly shaded by music, it seemed, the King spoke:

“ ‘Khayman’s told you what has befallen us,’ he said. ‘We stand before you the beneficiaries of a great miracle; for we have triumphed over certain death. We are now quite beyond the limitations and needs of human beings; and we see and understand things which were withheld from us before.’

“But the Queen’s facade gave way immediately. In a hissing

whisper she said, ‘You must explain this to us! What has your spirit done?

“We were in worse danger than ever from these monsters; and I tried to convey this warning to Mekare, but at once the Queen laughed. ‘Do you think I don’t know what you are thinking?’ she said.

“But the King begged her to be silent. ‘Let the witches use their powers,’ he said. ‘You know that we have always revered you.’

“ ‘Yes.’ The Queen sneered. ‘And you sent this curse upon us.’

“At once I averred that we had not done it, that we had kept faith when we left the kingdom, that we had gone back to our home. And as Mekare studied the pair of them in silence, I begged them to understand that if the spirit had done this, he had done it of his own whim.

“ ‘Whim!’ the Queen said. ‘What do you mean by such a word as whim? What has happened to us? What are we!’ she asked again. Then she drew back her lips for us to see her teeth. We beheld the fangs in her mouth, tiny, yet sharp as knives. And the King demonstrated to us this change as well.

“ ‘The better to draw the blood,’ he whispered. ‘Do you know what this thirst is to us! We cannot satisfy it! Three, four men a night die to feed us, yet we go to our bed tortured by thirst.’

“The Queen tore at her hair as if she would give in to screaming. But the King laid his hand on her arm. ‘Advise us, Mekare and Maharet,’ he said. ‘For we would understand this transformation and how it might be used for good.’

“ ‘Yes,’ the Queen said, struggling to recover. ‘For surely such a thing cannot happen without reason . . . .’ Then losing her conviction, she fell quiet. Indeed it seemed her small pragmatic view of things, ever puny and seeking for justifications, had collapsed utterly, while the King clung to his illusions as men often do, until very late in life.

“Now, as they fell silent, Mekare went forward and laid her hands upon the King. She laid her hands upon his shoulders; and closed her eyes. Then she laid her hands upon the Queen in the same manner, though the Queen glared at her with venom in her eyes.

“ ‘Explain to us,’ Mekare said, looking at the Queen, ‘what

happened at the very moment. What do you remember? What did you see?’

“The Queen was silent, her face drawn and suspicious. Her beauty had been, in truth, enhanced by this transformation, yet there was something repellent in her, as if she were not the flower now but the replica of the flower made of pure white wax. And as she grew reflective she appeared somber and vicious, and instinctively I drew close to Mekare to protect her from what might take place.

“But then the Queen spoke:

“ ‘They came to kill us, the traitors! They would blame it on the spirits; that was the plan. And all to eat the flesh again, the flesh of their mothers and fathers, and the flesh for which they loved to hunt. They came into the house and they stabbed me with their daggers, I their sovereign Queen.’ She paused as if seeing these things again before her eyes. ‘I fell as they slashed at me, as they drove their daggers into my breast. One cannot live with such wounds as I received; and so as I fell to the floor, I knew that I was dead! Do you hear what I am saying? I knew that nothing could save me. My blood was pouring out onto the floor.

“ ‘But even as I saw it pooling before me, I realized I was not in my wounded body, that I had already left it, that death had taken me and was drawing me upwards sharply as if through a great tunnel to where I would suffer no more!

“ ‘I wasn’t frightened; I felt nothing; I looked down and saw myself lying pale and covered with blood in that little house. Yet I did not care. I was free of it. But suddenly something took hold of me, took hold of my invisible being! The tunnel was gone; I was caught in a great mesh like a fisherman’s net. With all my strength I pushed against it, and it gave with my strength but it did not break and it gripped me and held me fast and I could not rise through it.

“ ‘When I tried to scream I was in my body again! I felt the agony of my wounds as if the knives were cutting me afresh. But this net, this great net, it still had a hold of me, and instead of being the endless thing it had been before, it was now contracted into a tighter weave like the weave of a great silk veil.

“ ‘And all about me this thing—visible yet invisible—whirled as if it were wind, lifting me, casting me down, turning me about. The

blood gushed from my wounds. And it ran into the weave of this veil, just as it might into the mesh of any fabric.

“ ‘And that which had been transparent was now drenched in blood. And a monstrous thing I saw, shapeless, and enormous, with my blood broadcast throughout it. And yet this thing had another property to it, a center, it seemed, a tiny burning center which was in me, and ran riot in my body like a frightened animal. Through my limbs it ran, thumping and beating. A heart with legs scampering. In my belly it circled as I clawed at myself. I would have cut myself open to get this thing out of me!

“ ‘And it seemed the great invisible part of this thing—the blood mist that surrounded me and enveloped me—was controlled by this tiny center, twisting this way and that as it scurried within me, racing into my hands one moment and into my feet the next. Up my spine it ran.

” ‘I would die, surely I would die, I thought. Then came a moment of blindness! Silence. It had killed me, I was certain. I should rise again, should I not? Yet suddenly I opened my eyes; I sat up off the floor as if no attack had befallen me; and I saw so clearly! Khayman, the glaring torch in his hand!—the trees of the garden— why, it was as if I had never truly seen such simple things for what they were! The pain was gone completely, from inside and from my wounds as well. Only the light hurt my eyes; I could not endure its brilliance. Yet I had been saved from death; my body had been glorified and made perfect. Except that—’ And there she stopped.

“She stared before her, indifferent for a moment. Then she said, ‘Khayman has told you all the rest.’ She looked to the King who stood beside her, watching her; trying to fathom the things she said, just as we tried to fathom them.

“ ‘Your spirit,’ she said. ‘It tried to destroy us. But something else had happened; some great power has intervened to triumph over its diabolical evil.’ Then again her conviction deserted her. The lies stopped on her tongue. Her face was suddenly cold with menace. And sweetly she said: ‘Tell us, witches, wise witches. You who know all the secrets. What is the name for what we are!’

“Mekare sighed. She looked at me. I knew she didn’t want to speak now on this thing. And the old warning of the spirits came back. The Egyptian King and Queen would ask us questions and

they would not like our answers. We would be destroyed. . . .

“Then the Queen turned her back. She sat down and bowed her head. And it was then, and only then, that her true sadness came to the fore. The King smiled at us, wearily. ‘We are in pain, witches,’ he said. ‘We could bear the burden of this transformation if only we understood it better. You, who have communed with all things invisible; tell us what you know of such magic; help us, if you will, for you know that we never meant to harm you, only to spread the truth and the law.’

“We did not dwell on the stupidity of this statement—the virtue of spreading the truth through wholesale slaughter and so forth and so on. But Mekare demanded that the King now tell what he could recall.

“He spoke of things which you—all of you seated here—surely know. Of how he was dying; and how he tasted the blood from his wife which had covered his face; and of how his body quickened, and wanted this blood, and then how he took it from his wife and she gave it; and then he became as she was. But for him there was no mysterious cloud of blood. There was no thing running rampant within him. ‘The thirst, it’s unbearable,’ he said to us. ‘Unbearable.’ And he too bowed his head.

“We stood in silence for a moment looking at each other, Mekare and I, and as always, Mekare spoke first:

“ ‘We know no name for what you are,’ she said. ‘We know no stories of such a thing ever happening in this world before. But it’s plain enough what took place.’ She fixed her eyes upon the Queen. ‘As you perceived your own death, your soul sought to make its swift escape from suffering as souls so often do. But as it rose, the spirit Amel seized it, this thing being invisible as your soul was invisible; and in the normal course of things you might have easily overcome this earthbound entity and gone on to realms we do not know.

“ ‘But this spirit had long before wrought a change within himself; a change that was utterly new. This spirit had tasted the blood of humans whom he had pierced or tormented, as you yourself have seen him do. And your body, lying there, and full of blood despite its many wounds, had life still.

“ ‘And so the spirit, thirsting, plunged down into your body, his

invisible form still wedded to your soul.

“ ‘Still you might have triumphed, fighting off this evil thing as possessed persons often do. But now the tiny core of this spirit—the thing of matter which is the roaring center of all spirits, from which their endless energy comes—was suddenly filled with blood as never in the past.

“ ‘And so the fusion of blood and timeless tissue was a million times magnified and accelerated; and blood flowed through all his body, both material and nonmaterial, and this was the blood cloud that you saw.

“ ‘But it is the pain you felt which is most significant, this pain which traveled through your limbs. For surely as inevitable death came to your body, the spirit’s tiny core merged with the flesh of your body as its energy had already merged with your soul. It found some special place or organ in which matter merged with matter as spirit had already merged with spirit; and a new thing was formed.’

“ ‘Its heart and my heart,’ the Queen whispered. ‘They became one.’ And closing her eyes, she lifted her hand and laid it on her breast.

“We said nothing, for this seemed a simplification, and we did not believe the heart was the center of intellect or emotion. For us, it had been the brain which controlled these things. And in that moment, both Mekare and I saw a terrible memory—our mother’s heart and brain thrown down and trampled in ashes and dust.

“But we fought this memory. It was abhorrent that this pain should be glimpsed by those who had been its cause.

“The King pressed us with a question. ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘you’ve explained what has happened to Akasha. This spirit is in her, core wedded perhaps to core. But what is in me? I felt no such pain, no such scurrying demon. I felt . . . I felt only the thirst when her bloodied hands touched my lips.’ He looked to his wife.

“The shame, the horror, they felt over the thirst was clear.

“ ‘But the same spirit is in you, too,’ Mekare answered. ‘There is but one Amel. Its core resides in the Queen, but it is in you also.’

“ ‘How is such a thing possible?’ asked the King.

“ ‘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. At 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,’ 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 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 cheeks. 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 I 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, ‘I 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 riverbank 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 Saqqâra, 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 Saqqâra. 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.

“Only much later, did I learn that the King and Queen made a great religion of their transformation; that they took upon themselves the identity of Osiris and Isis, and darkened those old myths to suit themselves.

“ ‘God of the underworld’ Osiris became—that is, the King who could appear only in darkness. And the Queen became Isis, the Mother, who gathers up her husband’s battered and dismembered body and heals it and brings it back to life.

“You’ve read in Lestat’s pages—in the tale Marius told to Lestat as it was told to him—of how the blood gods created by the Mother

and Father took the blood sacrifice of evildoers in shrines hidden within the hills of Egypt; and how this religion endured until the time of Christ.

“And you have learned something also of how Khayman’s rebellion succeeded, how the equal enemies of the King and Queen whom he had created eventually rose up against the Mother and Father; and how great wars were fought among the blood drinkers of the world. Akasha herself revealed these things to Marius, and Marius revealed them to Lestat.

“In those early centuries, the Legend of the Twins was born; for the Egyptian soldiers who had witnessed the events of our lives from the massacre of our people to our final capture were to tell the tales. The Legend of the Twins was even written by the scribes of Egypt in later times. It was believed that one day Mekare would reappear to strike down the Mother, and all the blood drinkers of the world would die as the Mother died.

“But all this happened without my knowledge, my vigilance, or my collusion, for I was long gone from such things.

“Only three thousand years later did I come to Egypt, an anonymous being, swathed in black robes, to see for myself what had become of the Mother and Father—listless, staring statues, shut up in stone in their underground temple, with only their heads and throats exposed. And to the priestly blood drinkers who guarded them, the young ones came, seeking to drink from the primal fount.

“Did I wish to drink, the young blood drinker priest asked me. Then I must go to the Elders and declare my purity and my devotion to the old worship, declare that I was not a rogue bent upon selfish ends. I could have laughed.

“But oh, the horror to see those staring things! To stand before them and whisper the names Akasha and Enkil, and see not a flicker within the eye or the tiniest twitch of the white skin.

“And so they had been for as long as anyone could remember, and so the priests told me; no one even knew anymore if the myths of the beginning were true. We—the very first children—had come to be called merely the First Brood who had spawned the rebels; but the Legend of the Twins was forgotten; and no one knew the names Khayman or Mekare or Maharet.

“Only one time later was I to see them, the Mother and the

Father. Another thousand years had passed. The great burning had just happened when the Elder in Alexandria—as Lestat has told you

—sought to destroy the Mother and the Father by placing them in the sun. They’d been merely bronzed by the day’s heat as Lestat told it, so strong had they become; for though we all sleep helplessly by day, the light itself becomes less lethal with the passage of time.

“But all over the world blood drinkers had gone up in flames during those daylight hours in Egypt; while the very old ones had suffered and darkened but nothing more. My beloved Eric was then one thousand years; we lived together in India; and he was during those interminable hours severely burned. It took great draughts of my blood to restore him. I myself was bronzed only, and though I lived with great pain for many nights, there was a curious side effect to it: it was then easier for me to pass among human beings with this dark skin.

“Many centuries later, weary of my pale appearance, I was to burn myself in the sun deliberately. I shall probably do it again.

“But it was all a mystery to me the first time it happened. I wanted to know why I had seen fire and heard the cries of so many perishing in my dreams, and why others whom I had made— beloved fledglings—had died this unspeakable death.

“And so I journeyed from India to Egypt, which to me has always been a hateful place. It was then I heard tell of Marius, a young Roman blood drinker, miraculously unburnt, who had come and stolen the Mother and Father and taken them out of Alexandria where no one could ever burn them—or us—again.

“It was not difficult to find Marius. As I’ve told you, in the early years we could never hear each other. But as time passed we could hear the younger ones just as if they were human beings. In Antioch, I discovered Marius’s house, a virtual palace where he lived a life of Roman splendor though he hunted the dark streets for human victims in the last hours before dawn.

“He had already made an immortal of Pandora, whom he loved above all other things on earth. And the Mother and Father he had placed in an exquisite shrine, made by his own hands of Carrara marble and mosaic flooring, in which he burned incense as if it were a temple, as if they were truly gods.

“I waited for my moment. He and Pandora went to hunt. And then I entered the house, making the locks give way from the inside.

“I saw the Mother and Father, darkened as I had been darkened, yet beautiful and lifeless as they’d been a thousand years before. On a throne he’d placed them, and so they would sit for two thousand years, as you all know. I went to them; I touched them. I struck them. They did not move. Then with a long dagger I made my test. I pierced the flesh of the Mother, which had become an elastic coating as my flesh had become. I pierced the immortal body which had become both indestructible and deceptively fragile, and my blade went right through her heart. From right to left I slashed with it, then stopped.

“Her blood poured viscous and thick for a moment; for a moment the heart ceased to beat; then the rupture began to heal; the spilt blood hardened like amber as I watched.

“But most significant, I had felt that moment when the heart failed to pump the blood; I had felt the dizziness, the vague disconnection; the very whisper of death. No doubt, all through the world blood drinkers had felt it, perhaps the young ones strongly, a shock which knocked them off their feet. The core of Amel was still within her; the terrible burning and the dagger, these things proved that the life of the blood drinkers resided within her body as it always would.

“I would have destroyed her then, if it had not been so. I would have cut her limb from limb; for no span of time could ever cool my hatred for her; my hatred for what she had done to my people; for separating Mekare from me. Mekare my other half; Mekare my own self.

“How magnificent it would have been if the centuries had schooled me in forgiveness; if my soul had opened to understand all the wrongs done me and my people.

“But I tell you, it is the soul of humankind which moves towards perfection over the centuries, the human race which learns with each passing year how better to love and forgive. I am anchored to the past by chains I cannot break.

“Before I left, I wiped away all trace of what I had done. For an hour perhaps I stared at the two statues, the two evil beings who

had so long ago destroyed my kindred and brought such evil upon me and my sister; and who had known such evil in return.

“ ‘But you did not win, finally,’ I said to Akasha. ‘You and your soldiers and their swords. For my child, Miriam, survived to carry the blood of my family and my people forward in time; and this, which may mean nothing to you as you sit there in silence, means all things to me.’

“And the words I spoke were true. But I will come to the story of my family in a moment. Let me deal now with Akasha’s one victory: that Mekare and I were never united again.

“For as I have told you, never in all my wanderings did I ever find a man, woman, or blood drinker who had gazed upon Mekare or heard her name. Through all the lands of the world I wandered, at one time or another, searching for Mekare. But she was gone from me as if the great western sea had swallowed her; and I was as half a being reaching out always for the only thing which can render me complete.

“Yet in the early centuries, I knew Mekare lived; there were times when the twin I was felt the suffering of the other twin; in dark dreamlike moments, I knew inexplicable pain. But these are things which human twins feel for each other. As my body grew harder, as the human in me melted away and this more powerful and resilient immortal body grew dominant, I lost the simple human link with my sister. Yet I knew, I knew that she was alive.

“I spoke to my sister as I walked the lonely coast, glancing out over the ice cold sea. And in the grottoes of Mount Carmel I made our story in great drawings—all that we had suffered—the panorama which you beheld in the dreams.

“Over the centuries many mortals were to find that grotto, and to see those paintings; and then they would be forgotten again, to be discovered anew.

“Then finally in this century, a young archaeologist, hearing tell of them, climbed Mount Carmel one afternoon with a lantern in his hand. And when he gazed on the pictures that I had long ago made, his heart leapt because he had seen these very same images on a cave across the sea, above the jungles in Peru.

“It was years before his discovery was known to me. He had traveled far and wide with his bits and pieces of evidence—

photographs of the cave drawings from both the Old World and the New; and a vase he found in the storage room of a museum, an ancient artifact from those dim forgotten centuries when the Legend of the Twins was still known.

“I cannot tell you the pain and happiness I experienced when I looked at the photographs of the pictures he had discovered in a shallow cave in the New World.

“For Mekare had drawn there the very same things that I had drawn; the brain, the heart, and the hand so much like my own had given expression to the same images of suffering and pain. Only the smallest differences existed. But the proof was beyond denial.

“Mekare’s bark had carried her over the great western ocean to a land unknown in our time. Centuries perhaps before man had penetrated the southern reaches of the jungle continent, Mekare had come ashore there, perhaps to know the greatest loneliness a creature can know. How long had she wandered among birds and beasts before she’d seen a human face?

“Had it been centuries, or millennia, this inconceivable isolation? Or had she found mortals at once to comfort her, or run from her in terror? I was never to know. My sister may have lost her reason long before the coffin which carried her ever touched the South American shore.

“All I knew was that she had been there; and thousands of years ago she had made those drawings, just as I had made my own.

“Of course I lavished wealth upon this archaeologist; I gave him every means to continue his research into the Legend of the Twins. And I myself made the journey to South America. With Eric and Mael beside me, I climbed the mountain in Peru by the light of the moon and saw my sister’s handiwork for myself. So ancient these paintings were. Surely they had been done within a hundred years of our separation and very possibly less.

“But we were never to find another shred of evidence that Mekare lived or walked in the South American jungles, or anywhere else in this world. Was she buried deep in the earth, beyond where the call of Mael or Eric could reach her? Did she sleep in the depths of some cave, a white statue, staring mindlessly, as her skin was covered with layer upon layer of dust?

“I cannot conceive of it. I cannot bear to think on it.

“I know only, as you know now, that she has risen. She has waked from her long slumber. Was it the songs of the Vampire Lestat that waked her? Those electronic melodies that reached the far corners of the world? Was it the thoughts of the thousands of blood drinkers who heard them, interpreted them, and responded to them? Was it Marius’s warning that the Mother walks?

“Perhaps it was some dim sense collected from all these signals— that the time had come to fulfill the old curse. I cannot tell you. I know only that she moves northward, that her course is erratic, and that all efforts on my part through Eric and Mael to find her have failed.

“It is not me she seeks. I am convinced of it. It is the Mother. And the Mother’s wanderings throw her off course.

“But she will find the Mother if that is her purpose! She will find the Mother! Perhaps she will come to realize that she can take to the air as the Mother can, and she will cover the miles in the blink of an eye when that discovery is made.

“But she will find the Mother. I know it. And there can be but one outcome. Either Mekare will perish; or the Mother will perish, and with the Mother so shall all of us.

“Mekare’s strength is equal to mine, if not greater. It is equal to the Mother’s; and she may draw from her madness a ferocity which no one can now measure or contain.

“I am no believer of curses; no believer of prophecy; the spirits that taught me the validity of such things deserted me thousands of years ago. But Mekare believed the curse when she uttered it. It came from the depths of her being; she set it into motion. And her dreams now speak only of the beginning, of the sources of her rancor, which surely feed the desire for revenge.

“Mekare may bring about the fulfillment; and it may be the better thing for us all. And if she does not destroy Akasha, if we do not destroy. Akasha, what will be the outcome? We know now what evils the Mother has already begun to do. Can the world stop this thing if the world understands nothing of it? That it is immensely strong, yet certainly vulnerable; with the power to crush, yet skin and bone that can be pierced or cut? This thing that can fly, and read minds, and make fire with its thoughts; yet can be burnt itself?

“How can we stop her and save ourselves, that is the question. I

want to live, as I have always wanted it. I do not want to close my eyes on this world. I do not want those I love to come to harm. Even the young ones, who must take life, I struggle in my mind to find some way to protect them. Is this evil of me? Or are we not a species, and do we not share the desire of any species to live on?

“Hearken to everything that I’ve told you of the Mother. To what I’ve said of her soul, and of the nature of the demon that resides in her—its core wedded to her core. Think on the nature of this great invisible thing which animates each one of us, and every blood drinker who has ever walked.

“We are as receptors for the energy of this being; as radios are receptors for the invisible waves that bring sound. Our bodies are no more than shells for this energy. We are—as Marius so long ago described it—blossoms on a single vine.

“Examine this mystery. For if we examine it closely perhaps we can yet find a way to save ourselves.

“And I would have you examine one thing further in regard to it; perhaps the single most valuable thing which I have ever learned.

“In those early times, when the spirits spoke to my sister and me on the side of the mountain, what human being would have believed that the spirits were irrelevant things? Even we were captives of their power, thinking it our duty to use the gifts we possessed for the good of our people, just as Akasha would later believe.

“For thousands of years after that, the firm belief in the supernatural has been part of the human soul. There were times when I would have said it was natural, chemical, an indispensable ingredient in the human makeup; something without which humans could not prosper, let alone survive.

“Again and again we have witnessed the birth of cults and religions—the dreary proclamations of apparitions and miracles and the subsequent promulgation of the creeds inspired by these ‘events.’

“Travel the cities of Asia and Europe—behold the ancient temples still standing, and the cathedrals of the Christian god in which his hymns are still sung. Walk through the museums of all countries; it is religious painting and sculpture that dazzles and humbles the soul.

“How great seems that achievement; the very machinery of culture dependent upon the fuel of religious belief.

“Yet what has been the price of that faith which galvanizes countries and sends army against army; which divides up the map of nations into victor and vanquished; which annihilates the worshipers of alien gods.

“But in the last few hundred years, a true miracle has happened which has nothing to do with spirits or apparitions, or voices from the heavens telling this or that zealot what he must now do!

“We have seen in the human animal a resistance finally to the miraculous; a skepticism regarding the works of spirits, or those who claim to see them and understand them and speak their truths.

“We have seen the human mind slowly abandon the traditions of law based upon revelation, to seek ethical truths through reason; and a way of life based upon respect for the physical and the spiritual as perceived by all human beings.

“And with this loss of respect for supernatural intervention; with this credulity of all things divorced from the flesh, has come the most enlightened age of all; for men and women seek for the highest inspiration not in the realm of the invisible, but in the realm of the human—the thing which is both flesh and spirit; invisible and visible; earthly and transcendent.

“The psychic, the clairvoyant, the witch, if you will, is no longer of value, I am convinced of it. The spirits can give us nothing more. In sum, we have outgrown our susceptibility to such madness, and we are moving to a perfection that the world has never known.

“The word has been made flesh at last, to quote the old biblical phrase with all its mystery; but the word is the word of reason; and the flesh is the acknowledgment of the needs and the desires which all men and women share.

“And what would our Queen do for this world with her intervention? What would she give it—she whose very existence is now irrelevant, she whose mind has been locked for centuries in a realm of unenlightened dreams?

“She must be stopped; Marius is right; who could disagree with him? We must stand ready to help Mekare, not to thwart her, even if it means the end for us all.

“But let me lay before you now the final chapter of my tale in which lies the fullest illumination of the threat that the Mother poses to us all:

“As I’ve already said, Akasha did not annihilate my people. They lived on in my daughter Miriam and in her daughters, and those daughters born to them.

“Within twenty years I had returned to the village where I’d left Miriam, and found her a young woman who had grown up on the stories that would become the Legend of the Twins.

“By the light of the moon I took her with me up the mountain and revealed to her the caves of her ancestors, and gave her the few necklaces and the gold that was still hidden deep within the painted grottoes where others feared to go. And I told Miriam all the stories of her ancestors which I knew. But I adjured her: stay away from the spirits; stay away from all dealings with things invisible, whatever people call them, and especially if they are called gods.

“Then I went to Jericho, for there in the crowded streets it was easy to hunt for victims, for those who wished for death and would not trouble my conscience; and easy to hide from prying eyes.

“But I was to visit Miriam many times over the years; and Miriam gave birth to four daughters and two sons, and these gave birth in turn to some five children who lived to maturity and of these five, two were women, and of those women eight different children were born. And the legends of the family were told by their mothers to these children; the Legend of the Twins they also learned—the legend of the sisters who had once spoken to spirits, and made the rain fall, and were persecuted by the evil King and Queen.

“Two hundred years later, I wrote down for the first time all the names of my family, for they were an entire village now, and it took four whole clay tablets for me to record what I knew. I then filled tablet after tablet with the stories of the beginning, of the women who had gone back to The Time Before the Moon.

“And though I wandered sometimes for a century away from my homeland, searching for Mekare, hunting the wild coasts of northern Europe, I always came back to my people, and to my secret hiding places in the mountains and to my house in Jericho, and I wrote down again the progress of the family, which daughters had been born and the names of those daughters born to them. Of

the sons, too, I wrote in detail—of their accomplishments, and personalities, and sometime heroism—as I did with the women. But of their offspring no. It was not possible to know if the children of the men were truly of my blood, and of my people’s blood. And so the thread became matrilineal as it has always been since.

“But never, never, in all this time, did I reveal to my family the evil magic which had been done to me. I was determined that this evil should never touch the family; and so if I used my ever increasing supernatural powers, it was in secret, and in ways that could be naturally explained.

“By the third generation, I was merely a kinswoman who had come home after many years in another land. And when and if I intervened, to bring gold or advice to my daughters, it was as a human being might do it, and nothing more.

“Thousands of years passed as I watched the family in anonymity, only now and then playing the long lost kinswoman to come into this or that village or family gathering and hold the children in my arms.

“But by the early centuries of the Christian era, another concept had seized my imagination. And so I created the fiction of a branch of the family which kept all its records—for there were now tablets and scrolls in abundance, and even bound books. And in each generation of this fictional branch, there was a fictional woman to whom the task of recordkeeping was passed. The name of Maharet came with the honor; and when time demanded it, old Maharet would die, and young Maharet would inherit the task.

“And so I myself was within the family; and the family knew me; and I knew the family’s love. I became the writer of letters; the benefactor; the unifier; the mysterious yet trusted visitor who appeared to heal breaches and right wrongs. And though a thousand passions consumed me; though I lived for centuries in different lands, learning new languages and customs, and marveling at the infinite beauty of the world, and the power of the human imagination, I always returned to the family, the family which knew me and expected things from me.

“As the centuries passed, as the millennia passed, I never went down into the earth as many of you have done. I never faced madness and loss of memory as was common among the old ones,

who became often like the Mother and Father, statues buried beneath the ground. Not a night has passed since those early times that I have not opened my eyes, known my own name, and looked with recognition upon the world around me, and reached for the thread of my own life.

“But it was not that madness didn’t threaten. It was not that weariness did not sometimes overwhelm. It was not that grief did not embitter me, or that mysteries did not confuse me, or that I did not know pain.

“It was that I had the records of my family to safeguard; I had my own progeny to look after, and to guide in the world. And so even in the darkest times, when all human existence seemed monstrous to me and unbearable, and the changes of the world beyond comprehension, I turned to the family as if it were the very spring of life itself.

“And the family taught me the rhythms and passions of each new age; the family took me into alien lands where perhaps I would never have ventured alone; the family took me into realms of art which might have intimidated me; the family was my guide through time and space. My teacher, my book of life. The family was all things.”

Maharet paused.

For a moment it seemed she would say something more. Then she rose from the table. She glanced at each of the others, and then she looked at Jesse.

“Now I want you to come with me. I want to show you what this family has become.”

Quietly, all rose and waited as Maharet walked round the table and then they followed her out of the room. They followed her across the iron landing in the earthen stairwell, and into another great mountaintop chamber, with a glass roof and solid walls.

Jesse was the last to enter, and she knew even before she had passed through the door what she would see. An exquisite pain coursed through her, a pain full of remembered happiness and unforgettable longing. It was the windowless room in which she’d stood long ago.

How clearly she recalled its stone fireplace, and the dark leather

furnishings scattered over the carpet; and the air of great and secret excitement, infinitely surpassing the memory of the physical things, which had forever haunted her afterwards, engulfing her in half-remembered dreams.

Yes, there the great electronic map of the world with its flattened continents, covered with thousands and thousands of tiny glowing lights.

And the other three walls, so dark, seemingly covered by a fine black wire mesh, until you realized what you were seeing: an endless ink-drawn vine, crowding every inch between floor and ceiling, growing from a single root in one corner into a million tiny swarming branches, each branch surrounded by countless carefully inscribed names.

A gasp rose from Marius as he turned about, looking from the great glowing map to the dense and delicately drawn family tree. Armand gave a faint sad smile also, while Mael scowled slightly, though he was actually amazed.

The others stared in silence; Eric had known these secrets; Louis, the most human of them all, had tears standing in his eyes. Daniel gazed in undisguised wonder. While Khayman, his eyes dulled as if with sadness, stared at the map as if he did not see it, as if he were still looking deep into the past.

Slowly Gabrielle nodded; she made some little sound of approval, of pleasure.

“The Great Family,” she said in simple acknowledgment as she looked at Maharet.

Maharet nodded.

She pointed to the great sprawling map of the world behind her, which covered the south wall.

Jesse followed the vast swelling procession of tiny lights that moved across it, out of Palestine, spreading all over Europe, and down into Africa, and into Asia, and then finally to both continents of the New World. Countless tiny lights flickering in various colors; and as Jesse deliberately blurred her vision, she saw the great diffusion for what it was. She saw the old names, too, of continents and countries and seas, written in gold script on the sheet of glass that covered the three-dimensional illusion of mountains, plains,


“These are my descendants,” Maharet said, “the descendants of Miriam, who was my daughter and Khayman’s daughter, and of my people, whose blood was in me and in Miriam, traced through the maternal line as you see before you, for six thousand years.”

“Unimaginable!” Pandora whispered. And she too was sad almost to the point of tears. What a melancholy beauty she had, grand and remote, yet reminiscent of warmth as if it had once been there, naturally, overwhelmingly. It seemed to hurt her, this revelation, to remind her of all that she had long ago lost.

“It is but one human family,” Maharet said softly. “Yet there is no nation on earth that does not contain some part of it, and the descendants of males, blood of our blood and uncounted, surely exist in equal numbers to all those now known by name. Many who went into the wastes of Great Russia and into China and Japan and other dim regions were lost to this record. As are many of whom I lost track over the centuries for various reasons. Nevertheless their descendants are there! No people, no race, no country does not contain some of the Great Family. The Great Family is Arab, Jew, Anglo, African; it is Indian; it is Mongolian; it is Japanese and Chinese. In sum, the Great Family is the human family.”

“Yes,” Marius whispered. Remarkable to see the emotion in his face, the faint blush of human color again and the subtle light in the eyes that always defies description. “One family and all families—” he said. He went towards the enormous map and lifted his hands irresistibly as he looked up at it, studying the course of lights moving over the carefully modeled terrain.

Jesse felt the atmosphere of that long ago night enfold her; and then unaccountably those memories—flaring for an instant—faded, as though they didn’t matter anymore. She was here with all the secrets; she was standing again in this room.

She moved closer to the dark, fine engraving on the wall. She looked at the myriad tiny names inscribed in black ink; she stood back and followed the progress of one branch, one thin delicate branch, as it rose slowly to the ceiling through a hundred different forks and twists.

And through the dazzle of all her dreams fulfilled now, she thought lovingly of all those souls who had made up the Great

Family that she had known; of the mystery of heritage and intimacy. The moment was timeless; quiet for her; she didn’t see the white faces of her new kin, the splendid immortal forms caught in their eerie stillness.

Something of the real world was alive still for her now, something that evoked awe and grief and perhaps the finest love she had ever been capable of; and it seemed for one moment that natural and supernatural possibility were equal in their mystery. They were equal in their power. And all the miracles of the immortals could not outshine this vast and simple chronicle. The Great Family.

Her hand rose as if it had a life of its own. And as the light caught Mael’s silver bracelet which she wore around her wrist still, she laid her fingers out silently on the wall. A hundred names covered by the palm of her hand.

“This is what is threatened now,” Marius said, his voice softened by sadness, his eyes still on the map.

It startled her, that a voice could be so loud yet so soft. No, she thought, no one will hurt the Great Family. No one will hurt the Great Family!

She turned to Maharet; Maharet was looking at her. And here we are, Jesse thought, at the opposite ends of this vine, Maharet and I.

A terrible pain welled in Jesse. A terrible pain. To be swept away from all things real, that had been irresistible, but to think that all things real could be swept away was unendurable.

During all her long years with the Talamasca, when she had seen spirits and restless ghosts, and poltergeists that could terrify their baffled victims, and clairvoyants speaking in foreign tongues, she had always known that somehow the supernatural could never impress itself upon the natural. Maharet had been so right! Irrelevant, yes, safely irrelevant—unable to intervene!

But now that stood to be changed. The unreal had been made real. It was absurd to stand in this strange room, amid these stark and imposing forms, and say, This cannot happen. This thing, this thing called the Mother, could reach out from behind the veil that had so long separated her from mortal eyes and touch a million human souls.

What did Khayman see when he looked at her now, as if he understood her. Did he see his daughter in Jesse?

“Yes,” Khayman said. “My daughter. And don’t be afraid. Mekare will come. Mekare will fulfill the curse. And the Great Family will go on.”

Maharet sighed. “When I knew the Mother had risen, I did not guess what she might do. To strike down her children, to annihilate the evil that had come out of her, and out of Khayman and me and all of us who out of loneliness have shared this power—that I could not really question! What right have we to live? What right have we to be immortal? We are accidents; we are horrors. And though I want my life, greedily, I want it as fiercely as ever I wanted it—I cannot say that it is wrong that she has slain so many—”

“She’ll slay more!” Eric said desperately.

“But it is the Great Family now which falls under her shadow,” Maharet said. “It is their world! And she would make it her own. Unless . . . ”

“Mekare will come,” Khayman said. The simplest smile animated his face. “Mekare will fulfill the curse. I made Mekare what she is, so that she would do it. It is our curse now.”

Maharet smiled, but it was vastly different, her expression. It was sad, indulgent, and curiously cold. “Ah, that you believe in such symmetry, Khayman.”

“And we’ll die, all of us!” Eric said.

“There has to be a way to kill her,” Gabrielle said coldly, “without killing us. We have to think on this, to be ready, to have some sort of plan.”

“You cannot change the prophecy,” Khayman whispered. “Khayman, if we have learned anything,” Marius said, “it is that

there is no destiny. And if there is no destiny then there is no prophecy. Mekare comes here to do what she vowed to do; it may be all she knows now or all she can do, but that does not mean that Akasha can’t defend herself against Mekare. Don’t you think the Mother knows Mekare has risen? Don’t you think the Mother has seen and heard her children’s dreams?”

“Ah, but prophecies have a way of fulfilling themselves,” Khayman said. “That’s the magic of it. We all understood it in

ancient times. The power of charms is the power of the will; you might say that we were all great geniuses of psychology in those dark days, that we could be slain by the power of another’s designs. And the dreams, Marius, the dreams are but part of a great design.”

“Don’t talk of it as if it were already done,” Maharet said. “We have another tool. We can use reason. This creature speaks now, does she not? She understands what is spoken to her. Perhaps she can be diverted—”

“Oh, you are mad, truly mad!” Eric said. “You are going to speak to this monster that roamed the world incinerating her offspring!” He was becoming more frightened by the minute. “What does this thing know of reason, that inflames ignorant women to rise against their men? This thing knows slaughter and death and violence, that is all it has ever known, as your story makes plain. We don’t change, Maharet. How many times have you told me. We move ever closer to the perfection of what we were meant to be.”

“None of us wants to die, Eric,” Maharet said patiently. But something suddenly distracted her.

At the same moment, Khayman too felt it. Jesse studied both of them, attempting to understand what she was seeing. Then she realized that Marius had undergone a subtle change as well. Eric was petrified. Mael, to Jesse’s surprise, was staring fixedly at her.

They were hearing some sound. It was the way they moved their eyes that revealed it; people listen with their eyes; their eyes dance as they absorb the sound and try to locate its source.

Suddenly Eric said: “The young ones should go to the cellar immediately.”

“That’s no use,” Gabrielle said. “Besides, I want to be here.” She couldn’t hear the sound, but she was trying to hear it.

Eric turned on Maharet. “Are you going to let her destroy us, one by one?”

Maharet didn’t answer. She turned her head very slowly and looked towards the landing.

Then Jesse finally heard the sound herself. Certainly human ears couldn’t hear it; it was like the auditory equivalent of tension without vibration, coursing through her as it did through every particle of substance in the room. It was inundating and

disorienting, and though she saw that Maharet was speaking to Khayman and that Khayman was answering, she couldn’t hear what they were saying. Foolishly, she’d put her hands to her ears. Dimly, she saw that Daniel had done the same thing, but they both knew it did no good at all.

The sound seemed suddenly to suspend all time; to suspend momentum. Jesse was losing her balance; she backed up against the wall; she stared at the map across from her, as if she wanted it somehow to sustain her. She stared at the soft flow of the lights streaming out of Asia Minor and to the north and to the south.

Some dim, inaudible commotion filled the room. The sound had died away, yet the air rang with a deafening silence.

In a soundless dream, it seemed, she saw the figure of the Vampire Lestat appear in the door; she saw him rush into Gabrielle’s arms; she saw Louis move towards him and then embrace him. And then she saw the Vampire Lestat look at her— and she caught the flashing image of the funeral feast, the twins, the body on the altar. He didn’t know what it meant! He didn’t know.

It shocked her, the realization. The moment on the stage came back to her, when he had obviously struggled to recognize some fleeting image, as they had drawn apart.

Then as the others drew him away now, with embraces and kisses again—and even Armand had come to him with his arms out—he gave her the faintest little smile. “Jesse,” he said.

He stared at the others, at Marius, at the cold and wary faces. And how white his skin was, how utterly white, yet the warmth, the exuberance, the almost childlike excitement—it was exactly as it had been before.

You'll Also Like