Chapter no 16

The Queen of the Damned

SHE sat at the end of the table, waiting for them; so still, placid, the magenta gown giving her skin a deep carnal glow in the light of the fire.

The edge of her face was gilded by the glow of the flames, and the dark window glass caught her vividly in a flawless mirror, as if the reflection were the real thing, floating out there in the transparent night.

Frightened. Frightened for them and for me. And strangely, for her. It was like a chill, the presentiment. For her. The one who might destroy all that I had ever loved.

At the door, I turned and kissed Gabrielle again. I felt her body collapse against me for an instant; then her attention locked on Akasha. I felt the faint tremor in her hands as she touched my face. I looked at Louis, my seemingly fragile Louis with his seemingly invincible composure; and at Armand, the urchin with the angel’s face. Finally those you love are simply . . . those you love.

Marius was frigid with anger as he entered the room; nothing could disguise this. He glared at me—I, the one who had slain those poor helpless mortals and left them strewn down the mountain. He knew, did he not? And all the snow in the world couldn’t cover it up. I need you, Marius. We need you.

His mind was veiled; all their minds were veiled. Could they keep their secrets from her?

As they filed into the room, I went to her right hand because she wanted me to. And because that’s where I knew I ought to be. I gestured for Gabrielle and Louis to sit opposite, close, where I could see them. And the look on Louis’s face, so resigned, yet sorrowful, struck my heart.

The red-haired woman, the ancient one called Maharet, sat at the opposite end of the table, the end nearest the door. Marius and Armand were on her right. And on her left was the young red-haired one, Jesse. Maharet looked absolutely passive, collected, as if nothing could alarm her. But it was rather easy to see why. Akasha couldn’t hurt this creature; or the other very old one, Khayman, who sat down now to my right.

The one called Eric was terrified, it was obvious. Only reluctantly

did he sit at the table at all. Mael was afraid too, but it made him furious. He glowered at Akasha, as if he cared nothing about hiding his disposition.

And Pandora, beautiful, brown-eyed Pandora—she looked truly uncaring as she took her place beside Marius. She didn’t even look at Akasha. She looked out through the glass walls, her eyes moving slowly, lovingly, as she saw the forest, the layers and layers of dim forest, with their dark streaks of redwood bark and prickling green.

The other one who didn’t care was Daniel. This one I’d seen at the concert too. I hadn’t guessed that Armand had been with him! Hadn’t picked up the faintest indication that Armand had been there. And to think, whatever we might have said to each other, it was lost now forever. But then that couldn’t be, could it? We would have our time together, Armand and I; all of us. Daniel knew it, pretty Daniel, the reporter with his little tape recorder who with Louis in a room on Divisadero Street had somehow started all of this! That’s why he looked so serenely at Akasha; that’s why he explored it moment by moment.

I looked at the black-haired Santino—a rather regal being, who was appraising me in a calculating fashion. He wasn’t afraid either. But he cared desperately about what happened here. When he looked at Akasha he was awed by her beauty; it touched some deep wound in him. Old faith flared for a moment, faith that had meant more to him than survival, and faith that had been bitterly burnt away.

No time to understand them all, to evaluate the links which connected them, to ask the meaning of that strange image—the two red-haired women and the body of the mother, which I saw again in a glancing flash when I looked at Jesse.

I was wondering if they could scan my mind and find in it all the things I was struggling to conceal; the things I unwittingly concealed from myself.

Gabrielle’s face was unreadable now. Her eyes had grown small and gray, as if shutting out all light and color; she looked from me to Akasha and back again, as if trying to figure something out.

And a sudden terror crept over me. Maybe it had been there all the time. They would never yield either. Something inveterate would prevent it, just as it had with me. And some fatal resolution

would come before we left this room.

For a moment I was paralyzed. I reached out suddenly and took Akasha’s hand. I felt her fingers close delicately around mine.

“Be quiet, my prince,” she said, unobtrusively and kindly. “What you feel in this room is death, but it is the death of beliefs and strictures. Nothing more.” She looked at Maharet. “The death of dreams, perhaps,” she said, “which should have died a long time ago.”

Maharet looked as lifeless and passive as a living thing can look. Her violet eyes were weary, bloodshot. And suddenly I realized why. They were human eyes. They were dying in her head. Her blood was infusing them over and over again with life but it wasn’t lasting. Too many of the tiny nerves in her own body were dead.

I saw the dream vision again. The twins, the body before them.

What was the connection?

“It is nothing,” Akasha whispered. “Something long forgotten; for there are no answers in history now. We have transcended history. History is built on errors; we will begin with truth.”

Marius spoke up at once:

“Is there nothing that can persuade you to stop?” His tone was infinitely more, subdued than I’d expected. He sat forward, hands folded, in the attitude of one striving to be reasonable. “What can we say? We want you to cease the apparitions. We want you not to intervene.”

Akasha’s fingers tightened on mine. The red-haired woman was staring at me now with her bloodshot violet eyes.

“Akasha, I beg you,” Marius said. “Stop this rebellion. Don’t appear again to mortals; don’t give any further commands.”

Akasha laughed softly. “And why not, Marius? Because it so upsets your precious world, the world you’ve been watching for two thousand years, the way you Romans once watched life and death in the arena, as if such things were entertainment or theater, as if it did not matter—the literal fact of suffering and death—as long as you were enthralled?”

“I see what you mean to do,” Marius said. “Akasha, you do not have the right.”

“Marius, your student here has given me those old arguments,”

she answered. Her tone was now as subdued and eloquent of patience as his. “But more significantly, I have given them a thousand times to myself. How long do you think I have listened to the prayers of the world, pondering a way to terminate the endless cycle of human violence? It is time now for you to listen to what I have to say.”

“We are to play a role in this?” Santino asked. “Or to be destroyed as the others have been destroyed?” His manner was impulsive rather than arrogant.

And for the first time the red-haired woman evinced a flicker of emotion, her weary eyes fixing on him immediately, her mouth tense.

“You will be my angels,” Akasha answered tenderly as she looked at him. “You will be my gods. If you do not choose to follow me, I’ll destroy you. As for the old ones, the old ones whom I cannot so easily dispatch”—she glanced at Khayman and Maharet again—“if they turn against me, they shall be as devils opposing me, and all humanity shall hunt them down, and they shall through their opposition serve the scheme quite well. But what you had before—a world to roam in stealth—you shall never have again.”

It seemed Eric was losing his silent battle with fear. He moved as if he meant to rise and leave the room.

“Patience,” Maharet said, glancing at him. She looked back at Akasha.

Akasha smiled.

“How is it possible,” Maharet asked in a low voice, “to break a cycle of violence through more wanton violence? You are destroying the males of the human species. What can possibly be the outcome of such a brutal act?”

“You know the outcome as well as I do,” Akasha said. “It’s too simple and too elegant to be misunderstood. It has been unimaginable until now. All those centuries I sat upon my throne in Marius’s shrine; I dreamed of an earth that was a garden, a world where beings lived without the torment that I could hear and feel. I dreamed of people achieving this peace without tyranny. And then the utter simplicity of it struck me; it was like dawn coming. The people who can realize such a dream are women; but only if all the men—or very nearly all the men—are removed.

“In prior ages, such a thing would not have been workable. But now it is easy; there is a vast technology which can reinforce it. After the initial purgation, the sex of babies can be selected; the unwanted unborn can be mercifully aborted as so many of both sexes are now. But there is no need to discuss this aspect of it, really. You are not fools, any of you, no matter how emotional or impetuous you are.

“You know as I know that there will be universal peace if the male population is limited to one per one hundred women. All forms of random violence will very simply come to an end.

“The reign of peace will be something the world has never known. Then the male population can be increased gradually. But for the conceptual framework to be changed, the males must be gone. Who can dispute that? It may not even be necessary to keep the one in a hundred. But it would be generous to do so. And so I will allow this. At least as we begin.”

I could see that Gabrielle was about to speak. I tried to give her a silent signal to be quiet, but she ignored me.

“All right, the effects are obvious,” she said. “But when you speak in terms of wholesale extermination, then questions of peace become ridiculous. You’re abandoning one half of the world’s population. If men and women were born without arms and legs, this might be a peaceful world as well.”

“The men deserve what will happen to them. As a species, they will reap what they have sown. And remember, I speak of a temporary cleansing—a retreat, as it were. It’s the simplicity of it which is beautiful. Collectively the lives of these men do not equal the lives of women who have been killed at the hands of men over the centuries. You know it and I know it. Now, tell me, how many men over the centuries have fallen at the hands of women? If you brought back to life every man slain by a woman, do you think these creatures would fill even this house?

“But you see, these points don’t matter. Again, we know what I say is true. What matters—what is relevant and even more exquisite than the proposition itself—is that we now have the means to make it happen. I am indestructible. You are equipped to be my angels. And there is no one who can oppose us with success.”

“That’s not true,” Maharet said.

A little flash of anger colored Akasha’s cheeks; a glorious blush of red that faded and left her as inhuman looking as before.

“You are saying that you can stop me?” she asked, her mouth stiffening. “You are rash to suggest this. Will you suffer the death of Eric, and Mael, and Jessica, for such a point?”

Maharet didn’t answer. Mael was visibly shaken but with anger not fear. He glanced at Jesse and at Maharet and then at me. I could feel his hatred.

Akasha continued to stare at Maharet.

“Oh, I know you, believe me,” Akasha went on, her voice softening slightly. “I know how you have survived through all the years unchanged. I have seen you a thousand times in the eyes of others; I know you dream now that your sister lives. And perhaps she does—in some pathetic form. I know your hatred of me has only festered; and you reach back in your mind, all the way back, to the very beginning as if you could find there some rhyme or reason for what is happening now. But as you yourself told me long ago when we talked together in a palace of mud brick on the banks of the Nile River, there is no rhyme or reason. There is nothing! There are things visible and invisible; and horrible things can befall the most innocent of us all. Don’t you see—this is as crucial to what I do now as all else.”

Again, Maharet didn’t answer. She sat rigid, only her darkly beautiful eyes showing a faint glimmer of what might have been pain.

“I shall make the rhyme or reason,” Akasha said, with a trace of anger. “I shall make the future; I shall define goodness; I shall define peace. And I don’t call on mythic gods or goddesses or spirits to justify my actions, on abstract morality. I do not call on history either! I don’t look for my mother’s heart and brain in the dirt!”

A shiver ran through the others. A little bitter smile played on Santino’s lips. And protectively, it seemed, Louis looked towards the mute figure of Maharet.

Marius was anxious lest this go further.

“Akasha,” he said in entreaty, “even if it could be done, even if the mortal population did not rise against you, and the men did not find some way to destroy you long before such a plan could be


“You’re a fool, Marius, or you think I am. Don’t you think I know what this world is capable of? What absurd mixture of the savage and the technologically astute makes up the mind of modern man?”

“My Queen, I don’t think you know it!” Marius said. “Truly, I don’t. I don’t think you can hold in your mind the full conception of what the world is. None of us can; it is too varied, too immense; we seek to embrace it with our reason; but we can’t do it. You know a world; but it is not the world; it is the world you have selected from a dozen other worlds for reasons within yourself.”

She shook her head; another flare of anger. “Don’t try my patience, Marius,” she said. “I spared you for a very simple reason. Lestat wanted you spared. And because you are strong and you can be of help to me. But that is all there is to it, Marius. Tread with care.”

A silence fell between them. Surely he realized that she was lying. I realized it. She loved him and it humiliated her, and so she sought to hurt him. And she had. Silently, he swallowed his rage.

“Even if it could be done,” he pressed gently, “can you honestly say that human beings have done so badly that they should receive such a punishment as this?”

I felt the relief course through me. I’d known he would have the courage, I’d known that he would find some way to take it into the deeper waters, no matter how she threatened him; he would say all that I had struggled to say.

“Ah, now you disgust me,” she answered.

“Akasha, for two thousand years I have watched,” he said. “Call me the Roman in the arena if you will and tell me tales of the ages that went before. When I knelt at your feet I begged you for your knowledge. But what I have witnessed in this short span has filled me with awe and love for all things mortal; I have seen revolutions in thought and philosophy which I believed impossible. Is not the human race moving towards the very age of peace you describe?”

Her face was a picture of disdain.

“Marius,” she said, “this will go down as one of the bloodiest centuries in the history of the human race. What revolutions do you speak of, when millions have been exterminated by one small

European nation on the whim of a madman, when entire cities were melted into oblivion by bombs? When children in the desert countries of the East war on other children in the name of an ancient and despotic God? Marius, women the world over wash the fruits of their wombs down public drains. The screams of the hungry are deafening, yet unheard by the rich who cavort in technological citadels; disease runs rampant among the starving of whole continents while the sick in palatial hospitals spend the wealth of the world on cosmetic refinements and the promise of eternal life through pills and vials.” She laughed softly. “Did ever the cries of the dying ring so thickly in the ears of those of us who can hear them? Has ever more blood been shed!”

I could feel Marius’s frustration. I could feel the passion that made him clench his fist now and search his soul for the proper words.

“There’s something you cannot see,” he said finally. “There is something that you fail to understand.”

“No, my dear one. There is nothing wrong with my vision. There never was. It is you who fail to see. You always have.”

“Look out there at the forest!” he said, gesturing to the glass walls around us, “Pick one tree; describe it, if you will, in terms of what it destroys, what it defies, and what it does not accomplish, and you have a monster of greedy roots and irresistible momentum that eats the light of other plants, their nutrients, their air. But that is not the truth of the tree. That is not the whole truth when the thing is seen as part of nature, and by nature I mean nothing sacred, I mean only the full tapestry, Akasha. I mean only the larger thing which embraces all.”

“And so you will select now your causes for optimism,” she said, “as you always have. Come now. Examine for me the Western cities where even the poor are given platters of meat and vegetables daily and tell me hunger is no more. Well, your pupil here has given me enough of that pap already—the idiot foolishness upon which the complacency of the rich has always been based. The world is sunk into depravity and chaos; it is as it always was or worse.”

“Oh, no, not so,” he said adamantly. “Men and women are learning animals. If you do not see what they have learned, you’re blind. They are creatures ever changing, ever improving, ever

expanding their vision and the capacity of their hearts. You are not fair to them when you speak of this as the most bloody century; you are not seeing the light that shines ever more radiantly on account of the darkness; you are not seeing the evolution of the human soul!”

He rose from his place at the table, and came round towards her on the left-hand side. He took the empty chair between her and Gabrielle. And then he reached out and he lifted her hand.

I was frightened watching him. Frightened she wouldn’t allow him to touch her; but she seemed to like this gesture; she only smiled.

“True, what you say about war,” he said, pleading with her, and struggling with his dignity at the same time. “Yes, and the cries of the dying, I too have heard them; we have all heard them, through all the decades; and even now, the world is shocked by daily reports of armed conflict. But it is the outcry against these horrors which is the light I speak of; it’s the attitudes which were never possible in the past. It is the intolerance of thinking men and women in power who for the first time in the history of the human race truly want to put an end to injustice in all forms.”

“You speak of the intellectual attitudes of a few.”

“No,” he said. “I speak of changing philosophy; I speak of idealism from which true realities will be born. Akasha, flawed as they are, they must have the time to perfect their own dreams, don’t you see?”

“Yes!” It was Louis who spoke out.

My heart sank. So vulnerable! Were she to turn her anger on him

—But in his quiet and refined manner, he was going on:

“It’s their world, not ours,” he said humbly. “Surely we forfeited it when we lost our mortality. We have no right now to interrupt their struggle. If we do we rob them of victories that have cost them too much! Even in the last hundred years their progress has been miraculous; they have righted wrongs that mankind thought were inevitable; they have for the first time developed a concept of the true family of man.”

“You touch me with your sincerity,” she answered. “I spared you only because Lestat loved you. Now I know the reason for that love.

What courage it must take for you to speak your heart to me. Yet you yourself are the most predatory of all the immortals here. You kill without regard for age or sex or will to live.”

“Then kill me!” he answered. “I wish that you would. But don’t kill human beings! Don’t interfere with them. Even if they kill each other! Give them time to see this new vision realized; give the cities of the West, corrupt as they may be, time to take their ideals to a suffering and blighted world.”

“Time,” Maharet said. “Maybe that is what we are asking for.

Time. And that is what you have to give.” There was a pause.

Akasha didn’t want to look again at this woman; she didn’t want to listen to her. I could feel her recoiling. She withdrew her hand from Marius; she looked at Louis for a long moment and then she turned to Maharet as if it couldn’t be avoided, and her face became set and almost cruel.

But Maharet went on:

“You have meditated in silence for centuries upon your solutions. What is another hundred years? Surely you will not dispute that the last century on this earth was beyond all prediction or imagining— and that the technological advances of that century can conceivably bring food and shelter and health to all the peoples of the earth.”

“Is that really so?” Akasha responded. A deep smoldering hate heated her smile as she spoke. “This is what technological advances have given the world. They have given it poison gas, and diseases born in laboratories, and bombs that could destroy the planet itself. They have given the world nuclear accidents that have contaminated the food and drink of entire continents. And the armies do what they have always done with modern efficiency. The aristocracy of a people slaughtered in an hour in a snow-filled wood; the intelligentsia of a nation, including all those who wear eyeglasses, systematically shot. In the Sudan, women are still habitually mutilated to be made pleasing to their husbands; in Iran the children run into the fire of guns!”

“This cannot be all you’ve seen,” Marius said. “I don’t believe it. Akasha, look at me. Look kindly on me, and what I’m trying to say.”

“It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe it!” she said with

the first sustained anger. “You haven’t accepted what I’ve been trying to tell you. You have not yielded to the exquisite image I’ve presented to your mind. Don’t you realize the gift I offer you? I would save you! And what are you if I don’t do this thing! A blood drinker, a killer!”

I’d never heard her voice so heated. As Marius started to answer, she gestured imperiously for silence. She looked at Santino and at Armand.

“You, Santino,” she said. “You who governed the Roman Children of Darkness, when they believed they did God’s will as the Devil’s henchmen—do you remember what it was like to have a purpose? And you, Armand, the leader of the old Paris coven; remember when you were a saint of darkness? Between heaven and hell, you had your place. I offer you that again; and it is no delusion! Can you not reach for your lost ideals?”

Neither answered her. Santino was horror-struck; the wound inside him was bleeding. Armand’s face revealed nothing but despair.

A dark fatalistic expression came over her. This was futile. None of them would join her. She looked at Marius.

“Your precious mankind!” she said. “It has learned nothing in six thousand years! You speak to me of ideals and goals! There were men in my father’s court in Uruk who knew the hungry ought to be fed. Do you know what your modern world is? Televisions are tabernacles of the miraculous and helicopters are its angels of death!”

“All right, then, what would your world be?” Marius said. His hands were trembling. “You don’t believe that the women aren’t going to fight for their men?”

She laughed. She turned to me. “Did they fight in Sri Lanka, Lestat? Did they fight in Haiti? Did they fight in Lynkonos?”

Marius stared at me. He waited for me to answer, to take my stand with him. I wanted to make arguments; to reach for the threads he’d given me and take it further. But my mind went blank.

“Akasha,” I said. “Don’t continue this bloodbath. Please. Don’t lie to human beings or befuddle them anymore.”

There it was—brutal and unsophisticated, but the only truth I

could give.

“Yes, for that’s the essence of it,” Marius said, his tone careful again, fearful, and almost pleading. “It’s a lie, Akasha; it’s another superstitious lie! Have we not had enough of them? And now, of all times, when the world’s waking from its old delusions. When it has thrown off the old gods.”

“A lie?” she asked. She drew back, as if he’d hurt her. “What is the lie? Did I lie when I told them I would bring a reign of peace on earth? Did I lie when I told them I was the one they had been waiting for? No, I didn’t lie. What I can do is give them the first bit of truth they’ve ever had! I am what they think I am. I am eternal, and all powerful, and shall protect them—”

“Protect them?” Marius asked. “How can you protect them from their most deadly foes?”

“What foes?”

“Disease, my Queen. Death. You are no healer. You cannot give life or save it. And they will expect such miracles. All you can do is kill.”

Silence. Stillness. Her face suddenly as lifeless as it had been in the shrine; eyes staring forward; emptiness or deep thought, impossible to distinguish.

No sound but the wood shifting and falling into the fire. “Akasha,” I whispered. “Time, the thing that Maharet asked for. A

century. So little to give.”

Dazed, she looked at me. I could feel death breathing on my face, death close as it had been years and years ago when the wolves tracked me into the frozen forest, and I couldn’t reach up high enough for the limbs of the barren trees.

“You are all my enemies, aren’t you?” she whispered. “Even you, my prince. You are my enemy. My lover and my enemy at the same time.”

“I love you!” I said. “But I can’t lie to you. I cannot believe in it! It is wrong! It is the very simplicity and the elegance which make it so wrong!”

Her eyes moved rapidly over their faces. Eric was on the verge of panic again. And I could feel the anger cresting in Mael.

“Is there not one of you who would stand with me?” she whispered. “Not one who would reach for that dazzling dream? Not even one who is ready to forsake his or her small and selfish world?” Her eyes fixed on Pandora. “Ah, you, poor dreamer, grieving for your lost humanity; would you not be redeemed?”

Pandora stared as if through a dim glass. “I have no taste for bringing death,” she answered in an even softer whisper. “It is enough for me to see it in the falling leaves. I cannot believe good things can come from bloodshed. For that’s the crux, my Queen. Those horrors happen still, but good men and women everywhere deplore them; you would reclaim such methods; you would exonerate them and bring the dialogue to an end.” She smiled sadly. “I am a useless thing to you. I have nothing to give.”

Akasha didn’t respond. Then her eyes moved over the others again; she took the measure of Mael, of Eric. Of Jesse.

“Akasha,” I said. “History is a litany of injustice, no one denies it. But when has a simple solution ever been anything but evil? Only in complexity do we find answers. Through complexity men struggle towards fairness; it is slow and clumsy, but it’s the only way. Simplicity demands too great a sacrifice. It always has.”

“Yes,” Marius said. “Exactly. Simplicity and brutality are synonymous in philosophy and in actions. It is brutal what you propose!”

“Is there no humility in you?” she asked suddenly. She turned from me to him. “Is there no willingness to understand? You are so proud, all of you, so arrogant. You want your world to remain the same on account of your greed!”

“No,” Marius said.

“What have I done that you should set yourselves so against me?” she demanded. She looked at me, then at Marius, and finally to Maharet. “From Lestat I expected arrogance,” she said. “I expected platitudes and rhetoric, and untested ideas. But from many of you I expected more. Oh, how you disappoint me. How can you turn away from the destiny that awaits you? You who could be saviors! How can you deny what you have seen?”

“But they’d want to know what we really are,” Santino said. “And once they did know, they’d rise against us. They’d want the immortal blood as they always do.”

“Even women want to live forever,” Maharet said coldly. “Even women would kill for that.”

“Akasha, it’s folly,” said Marius. “It cannot be accomplished. For the Western world, not to resist would be unthinkable.”

“It is a savage and primitive vision,” Maharet said with cold scorn.

Akasha’s face darkened again with anger. Yet even in rage, the prettiness of her expression remained. “You have always opposed me!” she said to Maharet. “I would destroy you if I could. I would hurt those you love.”

There was a stunned silence. I could smell the fear of the others, though no one dared to move or speak.

Maharet nodded. She smiled knowingly.

“It is you who are arrogant,” she answered. “It is you who have learned nothing. It is you who have not changed in six thousand years. It is your soul which remains unperfected, while mortals move to realms you will never grasp. In your isolation you dreamed dreams as thousands of mortals have done, protected from all scrutiny or challenge; and you emerge from your silence, ready to make these dreams real for the world? You bring them here to this table, among a handful of your fellow creatures, and they crumble. You cannot defend them. How could anyone defend them? And you tell us we deny what we see!”

Slowly Maharet rose from the chair. She leant forward slightly, her weight resting on her fingers as they touched the wood.

“Well, I’ll tell you what I see,” she went on. “Six thousand years ago, when men believed in spirits, an ugly and irreversible accident occurred; it was as awful in its own way as the monsters born now and then to mortals which nature does not suffer to live. But you, clinging to life, and clinging to your will, and clinging to your royal prerogative, refused to take that awful mistake with you to an early grave. To sanctify it, that was your purpose. To spin a great and glorious religion; and that is still your purpose now. But it was an accident finally, a distortion, and nothing more.

“And look now at the ages since that dark and evil moment; look at the other religions founded upon magic; founded upon some apparition or voice from the clouds! Founded upon the intervention

of the supernatural in one guise or another—miracles, revelations, a mortal man rising from the dead!

“Look on the effect of your religions, those movements that have swept up millions with their fantastical claims. Look at what they have done to human history. Look at the wars fought on account of them; look at the persecutions, the massacres. Look at the pure enslavement of reason; look at the price of faith and zeal.

“And you tell us of children dying in the Eastern countries, in the name of Allah as the guns crackle and the bombs fall!

“And the war of which you speak in which one tiny European nation sought to exterminate a people. . . . In the name of what grand spiritual design for a new world was that done? And what does the world remember of it? The death camps, the ovens in which bodies were burnt by the thousands. The ideas are gone!

“I tell you, we would be hard put to determine what is more evil

—religion or the pure idea. The intervention of the supernatural or the elegant simple abstract solution! Both have bathed this earth in suffering; both have brought the human race literally and figuratively to its knees.

“Don’t you see? It is not man who is the enemy of the human species. It is the irrational; it is the spiritual when it is divorced from the material; from the lesson in one beating heart or one bleeding vein.

“You accuse us of greed. Ah, but our greed is our salvation. Because we know what we are; we know our limits and we know our sins; you have never known yours.

“You would begin it all again, wouldn’t you? You would bring a new religion, a new revelation, a new wave of superstition and sacrifice and death.”

“You lie,” Akasha answered, her voice barely able to contain her fury. “You betray the very beauty I dream of; you betray it because you have no vision, you have no dreams.”

“The beauty is out there!” Maharet said. “It does not deserve your violence! Are you so merciless that the lives you would destroy mean nothing! Ah, it was always so!”

The tension was unbearable. The blood sweat was breaking out on my body. I could see the panic all around. Louis had bowed his

head and covered his face with his hands. Only the young Daniel seemed hopelessly enraptured. And Armand merely gazed at Akasha as if it were all out of his hands.

Akasha was silently struggling. But then she appeared to regain her conviction.

“You lie as you have always done,” she said desperately. “But it does not matter whether you fight on my side. I will do what I mean to do; I will reach back over the millennia and I will redeem that long ago moment, that long ago evil which you and your sister brought into our land; I will reach back and raise it up in the eyes of the world until it becomes the Bethlehem of the new era; and peace on earth will exist at last. There is no great good that was ever done without sacrifice and courage. And if you all turn against me, if you all resist me, then I shall make of better mettle the angels I require.”

“No, you will not do it,” Maharet said.

“Akasha, please,” Marius said. “Grant us time. Agree only to wait, to consider. Agree that nothing must come from this moment.”

“Yes,” I said. “Give us time. Come with me. Let us go together out there—you and I and Marius—out of dreams and visions and into the world itself.”

“Oh, how you insult me and belittle me,” she whispered. Her anger was turned on Marius but it was about to turn on me.

“There are so many things, so many places,” he said, “that I want to show you! Only give me a chance. Akasha, for two thousand years I cared for you, I protected you . . . ”

“You protected yourself! You protected the source of your power, the source of your evil!”

“I’m imploring you,” Marius said. “I will get on my knees to you. A month only, to come with me, to let us talk together, to let us examine all the evidence . . . ”

“So small, so selfish,” Akasha whispered. “And you feel no debt to the world that made you what you are, no debt to give it now the benefit of your power, to alchemize yourselves from devils into gods!”

She turned to me suddenly, the shock spreading over her face. “And you, my prince, who came into my chamber as if I were the

Sleeping Beauty, who brought me to life again with your passionate kiss. Will you not reconsider? For my love!” The tears again were standing in her eyes. “Must you join with them now against me, too?” She reached up and placed her two hands on the sides of my face. “How can you betray me?” she said. “How can you betray such a dream? They are slothful beings; deceitful; full of malice. But your heart was pure. You had a courage that transcended pragmatism. You had your dreams too!”

I didn’t have to answer. She knew. She could see it better perhaps than I could see it. And all I saw was the suffering in her black eyes. The pain, the incomprehension; and the grief she was already experiencing for me.

It seemed she couldn’t move or speak suddenly. And there was nothing I could do now; nothing to save them; or me. I loved her! But I couldn’t stand with her! Silently, I begged her to understand and forgive.

Her face was frozen, almost as if the voices had reclaimed her; it was as if I were standing before her throne in the path of her changeless gaze.

“I will kill you first, my prince,” she said, her fingers caressing me all the more gently. “I want you gone from me. I will not look into your face and see this betrayal again.”

“Harm him and that shall be our signal,” Maharet whispered. “We shall move against you as one.”

“And you move against yourselves!” she answered, glancing at Maharet. “When I finish with this one I love, I shall kill those you love; those who should have been dead already; I shall destroy all those whom I can destroy; but who shall destroy me?”

“Akasha,” Marius whispered. He rose and came towards her; but she moved in the blink of an eye and knocked him to the floor. I heard him cry out as he fell. Santino went to his aid.

Again, she looked at me; and her hands closed on my shoulders, gentle and loving as before. And through the veil of my tears, I saw her smile sadly. “My prince, my beautiful prince,” she said.

Khayman rose from the table. Eric rose. And Mael. And then the young ones rose, and lastly Pandora, who moved to Marius’s side.

She released me. And she too rose to her feet. The night was so

quiet suddenly that the forest seemed to sigh against the glass.

And this is what I’ve wrought, I who alone remained seated, looking not at any of them, but at nothing. At the small glittering sweep of my life, my little triumphs, my little tragedies, my dreams of waking the goddess, my dreams of goodness, and of fame.

What was she doing? Assessing their power? Looking from one to the other, and then back to me. A stranger looking down from some lofty height. And so now the fire comes, Lestat. Don’t dare to look at Gabrielle or Louis, lest she turn it that way. Die first, like a coward, and then you don’t have to see them die.

And the awful part is, you won’t know who wins finally— whether or not she triumphs, or we all go down together. Just like not knowing what it was all about, or why, or what the hell the dream of the twins meant, or how this whole world came into being. You just won’t ever know.

I was weeping now and she was weeping and she was that tender fragile being again, the being I had held on Saint-Domingue, the one who needed me, but that weakness wasn’t destroying her after all, though it would certainly destroy me.

“Lestat,” she whispered as if in disbelief.

“I can’t follow you,” I said, my voice breaking. Slowly I rose to my feet. “We’re not angels, Akasha; we are not gods. To be human, that’s what most of us long for. It is the human which has become myth to us.”

It was killing me to look at her. I thought of her blood flowing into me; of the powers she’d given me. Of what it had been like to travel with her through the clouds. I thought of the euphoria in the Haitian village when the women had come with their candles, singing their hymms.

“But that is what it will be, my beloved,” she whispered. “Find your courage! It’s there.” The blood tears were coursing down her face. Her lip trembled and the smooth flesh of her forehead was creased with those perfectly straight lines of utter distress.

Then she straightened. She looked away from me: and her face went blank and beautifully smooth again. She looked past us, and I felt she was reaching for the strength to do it, and the others had better act fast. I wished for that—like sticking a dagger into her;

they had better bring her down now, and I could feel the tears sliding down my face.

But something else was happening. There was a great soft musical sound from somewhere. Glass shattering, a great deal of glass. There was a sudden obvious excitement in Daniel. In Jesse. But the old ones stood frozen, listening. Again, glass breaking; someone entering by one of the many portals of this rambling house.

She took a step back. She quickened as if seeing a vision; and a loud hollow sound filled the stairwell beyond the open door. Someone down below in the passage.

She moved away from the table, towards the fireplace. She seemed for all the world afraid.

Was that possible? Did she know who was coming, and was it another old one? And was that what she feared—that more could accomplish what these few could not?

It was nothing so calculated finally; I knew it; she was being defeated inside. All courage was leaving her. It was the need, the loneliness, after all! It had begun with my resistance, and they had deepened it, and then I had dealt her yet another blow. And now she was transfixed by this loud, echoing, and impersonal noise. Yet she did know who this person was, I could sense it. And the others knew too.

The noise was growing louder. The visitor was coming up the stairs. The skylight and the old iron pylons reverberated with the shock of each heavy step.

“But who is it!” I said suddenly. I could stand it no longer. There was that image again, that image of the mother’s body and the twins.

“Akasha!” Marius said. “Give us the time we ask for. Forswear the moment. That is enough!”

“Enough for what!” she cried sharply, almost savagely. “For our lives, Akasha,” he said. “For all our lives!”

I heard Khayman laugh softly, the one who hadn’t spoken even once.

The steps had reached the landing.

Maharet stood at the edge of the open doorway, and Mael was

beside her. I hadn’t even seen them move.

Then I saw who and what it was. The woman I’d glimpsed moving through the jungles, clawing her way out of the earth, walking the long miles on the barren plain. The other twin of the dreams I’d never understood! And now she stood framed in the dim light from the stairwell, staring straight at the distant figure of Akasha, who stood some thirty feet away with her back to the glass wall and the blazing fire.

Oh, but the sight of this one. Gasps came from the others, even from the old ones, from Marius himself.

A thin layer of soil encased her all over, even the rippling shape of her long hair. Broken, peeling, stained by the rain even, the mud still clung to her, clung to her naked arms and bare feet as if she were made of it, made of earth itself. It made a mask of her face. And her eyes peered out of the mask, naked, rimmed in red. A rag covered her, a blanket filthy and torn, and tied with a hemp rope around her waist.

What impulse could make such a being cover herself, what tender human modesty had caused this living corpse to stop and make this simple garment, what suffering remnant of the human heart?

Beside her, staring at her, Maharet appeared to weaken suddenly all over as if her slender body were going to drop.

“Mekare!” she whispered.

But the woman didn’t see her or hear her; the woman stared at Akasha, the eyes gleaming with fearless animal cunning as Akasha moved back towards the table, putting the table between herself and this creature, Akasha’s face hardening, her eyes full of undisguised hate.

“Mekare!” Maharet cried. She threw out her hands and tried to catch the woman by the shoulders and turn her around.

The woman’s right hand went out, shoving Maharet backwards so that she was thrown yards across the room until she tumbled against the wall.

The great sheet of plate glass vibrated, but did not shatter. Gingerly Maharet touched it with her fingers; then with the fluid grace of a cat, she sprang up and into the arms of Eric, who was rushing to her aid.

Instantly he pulled her back towards the door. For the woman now struck the enormous table and sent it sliding northward, and then over on its side.

Gabrielle and Louis moved swiftly into the northwest corner, Santino and Armand the other way, towards Mael and Eric and Maharet.

Those of us on the other side merely backed away, except for Jesse, who had moved towards the door.

She stood beside Khayman and as I looked at him now I saw with amazement that he wore a thin, bitter smile.

“The curse, my Queen,” he said, his voice rising sharply to fill the room.

The woman froze as she heard him behind her. But she did not turn around.

And Akasha, her face shimmering in the firelight, quavered visibly, and the tears flowed again.

“All against me, all of you!” she said. “Not a one who would come to my side!” She stared at me, even as the woman moved towards her.

The woman’s muddy feet scraped the carpet, her mouth gaping and her hands only slightly poised, her arms still down at her sides. Yet it was the perfect attitude of menace as she took one slow step after another.

But again Khayman spoke, bringing her suddenly to a halt.

In another language, he cried out, his voice gaining volume until it was a roar. And only the dimmest translation of it came clear to me.

“Queen of the Damned . . . hour of worst menace . . . I shall rise to stop you. . . . ” I understood. It had been Mekare’s—the woman’s— prophecy and curse. And everyone here knew it, understood it. It had to do with that strange, inexplicable dream.

“Oh, no, my children!” Akasha screamed suddenly. “It is not finished!”

I could feel her collecting her powers; I could see it, her body tensing, breasts thrust forward, her hands rising as if reflexively, fingers curled.

The woman was struck by it, shoved backwards, but instantly resisted. And then she too straightened, her eyes widening, and she rushed forward so swiftly I couldn’t follow it, her hands out for the Queen.

I saw her fingers, caked with mud, streaking towards Akasha; I saw Akasha’s face as she was caught by her long black hair. I heard her scream. Then I saw her profile, as her head struck the western window and shattered it, the glass crashing down in great dagged shards.

A violent shock passed through me; I could neither breathe nor move. I was falling to the floor. I couldn’t control my limbs. Akasha’s headless body was sliding down the fractured glass wall, the shards still falling around it. Blood streamed down the broken glass behind her. And the woman held Akasha’s severed head by the hair!

Akasha’s black eyes blinked, widened. Her mouth opened as if to scream again.

And then the light was going out all around me; it was as if the fire had been extinguished, only it hadn’t, and as I rolled over on the carpet, crying, my hand clawing at it involuntarily, I saw the distant flames through a dark rosy haze.

I tried to lift my weight. I couldn’t. I could hear Marius calling to me, Marius silently calling only my name.

Then I was rising, just a little, and all my weight pressed against my aching arms and hands.

Akasha’s eyes were fixed on me. Her head was lying there almost within my reach, and the body lay on its back, blood gushing from the stump of the neck. Suddenly the right arm quivered; it was lifted, then it flopped back down to the floor. Then it rose again, the hand dangling. It was reaching for the head!

I could help it! I could use the powers she’d given me to try to move it, to help it reach the head. And as I struggled to see in the dimming light, the body lurched, shivered, and flopped down closer to the head.

But the twins! They were beside the head and the body. Mekare, staring at the head dully, with those vacant red-rimmed eyes. And Maharet, as if with the last breath in her, kneeling now beside her

sister, over the body of the Mother, as the room grew darker and colder, and Akasha’s face began to grow pale and ghostly white as if all the light inside were going out.

I should have been afraid; I should have been in terror, the cold was creeping over me, and I could hear my own choking sobs. But the strangest elation overcame me; I realized suddenly what I was seeing:

“It’s the dream,” I said. Far away I could hear my own voice. “The twins and the body of the Mother, do you see it! The image from the dream!”

Blood spread out from Akasha’s head into the weave of the carpet; Maharet was sinking down, her hands out flat, and Mekare too had weakened and bent down over the body, but it was still the same image, and I knew why I’d seen it now, I knew what it meant!

“The funeral feast!” Marius cried. “The heart and the brain, one of you—take them into yourself. It is the only chance.”

Yes, that was it. And they knew! No one had to tell them. They knew!

That was the meaning! And they’d all seen it, and they all knew. Even as my eyes were closing, I realized it; and this lovely feeling deepened, this sense of completeness, of something finished at last. Of something known!

Then I was floating, floating in the ice cold darkness again as if I were in Akasha’s arms, and we were rising into the stars.

A sharp crackling sound brought me back. Not dead yet, but dying. And where are those I love?

Fighting for life still, I tried to open my eyes; it seemed impossible. But then I saw them in the thickening gloom—the two of them, their red hair catching the hazy glow of the fire; the one holding the bloody brain in her mud-covered fingers, and the other, the dripping heart. All but dead they were, their own eyes glassy, their limbs moving as if through water. And Akasha stared forward still, her mouth open, the blood gushing from her shattered skull. Mekare lifted the brain to her mouth; Maharet put the heart in her other hand; Mekare took them both into herself.

Darkness again; no firelight; no point of reference; no sensation except pain; pain all through the thing that I was which had no

limbs, no eyes, no mouth to speak. Pain, throbbing, electrical; and no way to move to lessen it, to push it this way, or that way, or tense against it, or fade into it. Just pain.

Yet I was moving. I was thrashing about on the floor. Through the pain I could feel the carpet suddenly; I could feel my feet digging at it as if I were trying to climb a steep cliff. And then I heard the unmistakable sound of the fire near me; and I felt the wind gusting through the broken window, and I smelled all those soft sweet scents from the forest rushing into the room. A violent shock coursed through me, through every muscle and pore, my arms and legs flailing. Then still.

The pain was gone.

I lay there gasping, staring at the brilliant reflection of the fire in the glass ceiling, and feeling the air fill my lungs, and I realized I was crying again, brokenheartedly, like a child.

The twins knelt with their backs to us; and they had their arms around each other, and their heads were together, their hair mingling, as they caressed each other, gently, tenderly, as if talking through touch alone.

I couldn’t muffle my sobs. I turned over and drew my arm up under my face and just wept.

Marius was near me. And so was Gabrielle. I wanted to take Gabrielle into my arms. I wanted to say all the things I knew I should say—that it was over and we had survived it, and it was finished—but I couldn’t.

Then slowly I turned my head and looked at Akasha’s face again, her face still intact, though all the dense, shining whiteness was gone, and she was as pale, as translucent as glass! Even her eyes, her beautiful ink black eyes were becoming transparent, as if there were no pigment in them; it had all been the blood.

Her hair lay soft and silken beneath her cheek, and the dried blood was lustrous and ruby red.

I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t want to. I started to say her name and it caught in my throat. It was as if I shouldn’t do it. I never should have. I never should have gone up those marble steps and kissed her face in the shrine.

They were all coming to life again, the others. Armand was

holding Daniel and Louis, who were both groggy and unable yet to stand; and Khayman had come forward with Jesse beside him, and the others were all right too. Pandora, trembling, her mouth twisted with her crying, stood far apart, hugging herself as if she were cold.

And the twins turned around and stood up now, Maharet’s arm around Mekare. And Mekare stared forward, expressionless, uncomprehending, the living statue; and Maharet said:

“Behold. The Queen of the Damned.”

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