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Authors: Lucius Shepard

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The Golden (22 page)

BOOK: The Golden
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As he stood
there, shivering in the crepuscular light and moist air, growing more
and more uneasy, Beheim realized that the chamber could not be
considered ordinary even in relation to the extraordinary potentials
of Castle Banat. The place was Mystery itself. He could feel it. It
was part of death, part of the infinite country whose only border was
the act of dying, and like all Mysteries, it was a realm where one
could lose oneself utterly, where the concept of life after death was
transformed from a philosophical concept into a bleak physicality, a
region whose unfathomable logics could in an instant fold up a tuck
of black essence into the shape of a monster, a dream, an endless
array of dread events and objects. He felt now the same dissolute
gravities as he had when he passed through judgment, the same
enfeebling despair and loss of orientation, as if he were falling and
falling, hoping for a fire to catch in his blood that would lend him
the strength to swim against the currents of death and strive toward
one of the faint lights that picked out the distance. Somehow the
Patriarch had succeeded in wedding the continuums of life and death,
and here he dwelled in both, at home in fire and in ice, fullness and
nothingness, steeping himself in these pure contraries, hardening
over the long centuries into a god.

More frightened
than he could remember, Beheim backed away from the edge of the pier,
eyes fixed on the mass of seething bodies; but then he spotted
something on a pier almost directly opposite, perhaps a hundred feet
away, that gave him pause: a blazing figure, a man made all of white
fire, so sharply defined against the blue-dark backdrop, it appeared
inset into the air. Though it possessed human form, it was
featureless, its effect rather like, he was later to think, a
wizard’s mark stamped at the bottom of a mystic scroll. After a
few beats the figure lifted its arm and pointed toward a ragged
opening resembling a cave mouth some forty feet above and to its
left. Beheim had the idea it was pointing out a path to the
Patriarch, commanding him to take it. But the thought of stepping
down among those half-alive things mindlessly churning their way to
nowhere . . . he could not bear it. He continued
backing toward the door, but as he spun about, preparing to run, he
found himself face-to-face with another blazing white figure. (Or was
it the same? When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw no sign of the
original.) It stood an arm’s length away, blocking his exit.
Though the face was without feature, as he stared into that white
oval, into such a fiery absolute of whiteness it seemed to flow with
dazzling hints of every color, he had a sense of insane intellect, a
soul in furious disarray. One touch of that glowing hand, he thought,
and blistering energy would spread through his flesh, magicking him
into a raving, featureless thing, a soul imprisoned with an armor of
fire, demented by pain, capable only of this sentinel obedience.

Beheim’s
first thought was that the figure had once been a man like himself,
one who had displeased the Patriarch and been punished in this
fashion; but then he was seized by the knowledge that this was not
someone
like
himself, but was by some uncanny process the image
or reality of his future, the infernal thing he would become if now
he tried to flee. He could not tell whether this impression was
purely premonitory or if it had been planted in his mind by the
Patriarch . . . though he suspected this latter to be
the case. Yet whatever the character of the premonition, he did not
question its truth. Hesitantly he moved toward the lip of the pier
and was relieved to find that the bodies below had cleared a pathway
for him, forming a long, curving avenue that stretched across the
chamber floor; however, this turn of events only marginally
diminished his fear, and it was with unsteady legs and a growing
sense of hopelessness that he scrambled down a crumbling slope to the
floor and set out for the cave mouth to which the fiery figure had
pointed.

He tried to
avoid looking at the bodies, heaped slightly more than head high on
either side, as he negotiated the crossing; but now and then
something would attract his attention, a throaty noise, a susurrus of
breath, a despondent sigh, and he would glance in reflex toward the
sound and encounter a staring eye, a slack mouth, a tangle of bluish
white limbs, a pallid scalp from which sprouted scant dark hairs, a
pair of emaciated buttocks, all in a tumbled, haphazard arrangement
such as might have been conceived by a lunatic artist. He did not
permit his eye to linger, but even a glance was sufficient to inform
him that despite their horrid state of repair, these pathetic
creatures still possessed minds and wills. There was pleading in
their tortured faces. Pleading, and what Beheim interpreted as
fearful recognition. Their flesh was wasted, desiccated, imbuing
their features with an androgynous aspect; yet here and there were
visible withered genitals and flaccid female breasts. Overall, they
seemed to emit a thin radiation of emotion; he could almost hear it,
less a keening than a whine, an expression redolent not—as he
might have thought—of agony and loss, but of milder emotions,
petulance and frustration, as if they were not truly unhappy with
their lot, merely dissatisfied.

After walking
among them for half a minute or thereabouts, Beheim became somewhat
accustomed to the surroundings. Though daunting, the chamber embodied
a sufficiently grand conception so as to mute its more horrific
qualities. If, he thought, one managed to quell one’s initial
revulsion and view it as a continuation of the castle’s bizarre
decor, it was possible to gain a perspective, to see it as
otherworldly, even oddly sublime. But on rounding a curve, coming in
sight of the opening he was to enter, Beheim’s hard-won
perspective went glimmering. Dozens of the creatures had piled
themselves high in order to create a crude stairway that he would
have to ascend in order to reach his objective. He made to turn back,
unwilling to be so intimate with them, but discovered that the avenue
had closed behind him, damned up by a wall of distended bellies and
grubby elbows and horny shins. There was nothing for him but to press
ahead.

Climbing that
stair, clutching at crooked knees and cleft buttocks for handholds,
stepping on foreheads and breasts and backs, encountering thready
pulses and hearing shocked exclamations as he put his weight on
stomach or chest, clinging to a pair of shoulders and leaning so near
to the face of a staring, gawping woman that her graveyard breath
warmed his cheek, feeling the bodies striving not to give way beneath
him—not even crawling through the sewer pipe after Vlad had
been as oppressive an experience, and by the time Beheim reached the
top and went stumbling forward into the opening, into the tunnel
beyond, he felt so soiled and defeated he was ready to take his place
among these damned and nearly empty vessels, and go slithering with
them this way and that, creating roads and dead ends for new
recruits. He rested against the wall, gathering himself. Blue light
struck inward from farther along the tunnel, glinting on the rock
faces, signaling the presence of another chamber. He supposed it
would be no less horrid than the first.

With a weary
step, he headed off along the tunnel, stopping once to consider his
options, deciding that he had none, then going on again. A short walk
brought him, as expected, to the top of a broad marble stair that led
down into a second chamber, equally vast, but much longer than it was
high, shaped roughly like an egg laid on its side, its pale gray
floor smooth yet slightly undulant, like well-worn limestone—it
made him think of a great natural cavern, an underground vista such
as might be described in the work of a baroque fantasist. Here, too,
there was sourceless blue light; here, too, the walls were ornamented
with disturbing bas-reliefs and the chamber floor was occupied by
hundreds of human figures, but these were not crawling, they were
standing and walking about and even dancing. Bathed in that sickly
radiance, dressed in elegant rags, the remnants of ball gowns and
evening clothes, their movements graceful albeit somewhat stiff, pale
couples circled to the inaudible rhythms of a sedate waltz—one
inaudible at least to Beheim’s ear—avoiding the numerous
small black pools, round as periods, that dotted the expanse, passing
in and out of the shadow of colossal statues, warriors, beasts, and
so forth, nine or ten of them, that sprouted up at irregular
intervals like chesspieces in an endgame. It was a gathering similar
to that held in the banquet hall on the evening of the murder, except
here there was no music, no laughter, no conversation, only a thick
silence that seemed to be welling from the blue shadows at the
opposite end of the chamber.

Despite the
morbid eccentricity of the scene, this chamber struck him as being
more hospitable than the first; but whatever complacency that idea
had bred was dashed when he noticed a woman ascending the stair
toward him. She was, he saw as she drew near, quite beautiful, though
her pallor and rigidity of expression—typical, he had heard, of
the most venerable members of the Family—did nothing to enhance
this impression. Her black hair was fashioned into a heavy braid that
hung down over her shoulder; the smooth curves of her belly and
breasts showed through rents in her gown of white brocade, and her
features were strong, almost too strong to be in harmony with the
delicate bone structure that supported them. It was a Mediterranean
face, with large dark eyes and high cheekbones and full lips, its
olive tone gone waxy, yet overall managing to retain a sensual
appeal; in fact, the longer he looked at her, the more her deathly
coloring and lack of expression came to seem positive facets of her
beauty, perverse accents that bespoke a haunting sexuality. Though
enormous potentials for violence and vindictiveness were implicit in
who she was, he could not help marveling at her and feeling a need to
be close to her, to gain through an intimate association some portion
of her knowledge and power. How long, he wondered, had she lived? A
thousand years and more, he’d wager. She might have trod the
Byzantine world, the Roman, walked with Darius and Caesar. She might
be Helen, Magdalene, Cleopatra, a Cretan sorceress. Compared with
her, compared with the force of the cold fire that flowed from her,
numbing his fear and rendering him increasingly vulnerable to her
charms, all the women of the Family he had known, even Alexandra,
were children of their sex.

She opened her
mouth, then closed it and sighed, as if speech were difficult for
her. When at last she did speak, her voice was frail, rusty, some of
the words incorporating pauses between syllables, hinging them with
hoarse breaths. “You are most welcome, Michel,” she said,
offering him her left hand, which was adorned with a moonstone set in
a wide silver band. “Come, let me introduce you to your elder
cousins.”

Her grip was
deceptively gentle. She could, he knew, wrench off his arm and sling
him halfway across the chamber with only a minimal effort; yet as she
led him down the stairs and out onto the floor among the gliding
dancers, he did not focus on the dire possibilities attendant on her
touch, but on the frisson of arousal he experienced whenever her hip
brushed against him; the sensational perfume of her blood; the
rippling of milky flesh across the tops of her breasts caused by the
shock of her footfalls; the charge of light in her eyes that flashed
each time she glanced at him, like silver fish surfacing briefly in
black ponds, barely a glint, yet too brilliant to be mere reflection;
the bemused half-smile that came to her lips when she caught him
staring; the entire subtlety of her presence, a potent emanation in
which he thought he could detect the essences of ancient magics and
forlorn histories, desolate kingdoms, burning cities. He was so
enthralled by her, he scarcely registered the introductions she made.
The men’s arrogant, dismissive nods, the hot eyes of the women
trying to pin down some fluttering corner of his soul, the
illustrious names of the branches they represented, Vandelore,
Moritella, Agenor, Pescalco, de Czege, LeMiron, Sepulveda—these
were irrelevancies. It was
her
name he wished to know,
her
gestures and looks he yearned to interpret. And not until a waltzing
couple passed too close, jostling him, did the spell she had cast
lift and permit him to remember why he had come. Nor was it until
that precise instant that he fully apprehended where he stood,
feeling with redoubled intensity an awareness of Mystery, the
disorientation and flagging spirits that derived from a propinquity
with the country of death, which lay everywhere, attached to the skin
of life like a dark subdermal layer and, in places such as this,
showed in patches through the flimsy cover of the living world.

He broke free of
the woman and gazed wildly about. They had come more than halfway
across the chamber and were standing about thirty feet from one of
the statues: a monolithic iron-colored rock thrusting up from the
pale stone of the floor, atop which was perched a massive throne of
some pitted blue mineral, and seated thereon, a sculpted male figure
with coarse, brooding features and taloned hands and dark corroded
skin almost the same color as the throne, making it seem either that
he was sinking into it or emerging from it. Several of the black
pools ringed the base of the monolith, and four couples were
negotiating a path among them, dipping and swaying, their heads
tilted at gay angles; the only sound was the sibilant scrape of their
dancing pumps on the stone. As he gazed out into the chamber at the
statues, immense court pieces, their pawns whirling over the undulant
gray floor, Beheim felt diminutive and lost, entirely out of his
element.

BOOK: The Golden
13.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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