by Whitley Strieber
Excerpt authorized by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Chapter One: The Conclave
Everyone knew the sins of Miriam Blaylock.
Her crime, and it was an unforgivable one, was to enjoy human beings as friends and lovers, rather than to simply exploit them. She could kiss them and find it sweet, have sex with them and afterward sleep like a contented tiger. To her own kind, this was perversion, like a man with a sheep.
The fact that this prejudice was nonsense did not make what she was doing now any easier. She pressed herself back against the seat of the pedicab, instinctively keeping her face hidden, not only from man, but from her own kind. The samlor moved swiftly down the wet street, spattering through puddles left by the last storm. From the shadows of the passenger compartment, she watched a concealing fog rising from the moat that surrounded the ancient Thai city of Chiang Mai.
How could she ever do this impossible thing? How could she ever face her own kind?
Some theorized that she must have human blood in her family. The idea that there could be interbreeding was absurd, of course nothing but an old husband's tale. She despised the narrowness of her kind, hated what, in recent centuries, their lives had become. They had once been princes, but now they lived behind walls, kept to the shadows, appeared in the human world only to hunt. They had opted out of man's technological society. They knew human breeding, but human technology was simply too intimidating for them.
Miriam owned a thriving nightclub in New York and had bookkeepers and assistants and bartenders, all humans. She had computers to run her accounts. She could access her stock portfolios using her PalmPilot, and she made money on the markets, plenty of it. She had a cell phone and GPS in her car. They didn't even have cars. Once the buggy no longer bounced along behind the horse, they had simply stopped riding. The same with sails. When ships lost their sails, her kind stopped traveling the world. And airplanes well, some of them probably weren't yet aware that they existed.
The other rulers of the world were now just shadows hiding in dens, their numbers slowly declining due to accidents. They called themselves the Keepers, but what did that mean nowadays? Gone was the time when they were the secret masters of humankind, keeping man as man keeps cattle.
Truth be told, the Keepers were in general decline, but they were far too proud to realize it. Conclaves were held every hundred years, and at the last ones Miriam had seen a change Keepers she had known a thousand years had followed her mother and father into death. Nobody had brought a child, nobody had courted.
Despite their failure, Miriam valued her kind. She valued herself. The Keepers were essential to the justice and meaning of the world. That was why she had come here, why she had tempted the humiliation and even the possible danger involved: she wanted to continue her species. Miriam wanted a baby.
The last of the four eggs that nature gave a Keeper woman would soon leave her body unless she found a man to fertilize it. For all that she had riches, honor, power, and beauty her essential meaning was un-fulfilled without a baby. She was here for her last-chance child.
She gazed across the gleaming back of the samlor driver at the busy night streets of the bustling little city. How the world was changing. She had chosen a samlor out of love for the past, which she most certainly shared with the rest of her kind. She remembered Chiang Mai as a small community of wooden houses with theps carved on the pediments of their soaring, peaked roofs, and golden temple spires rising above lush stands of trees. Now, the narrow old streets resounded with the shrill clatter of tuk-tuks, which were so rapidly replacing the pedal-driven samlor. The traffic wasn't quite yet the hell on earth of Bangkok, but it was certainly going in that direction.
She longed to be home, in her beautiful house, surrounded by her be-loved people, faithful Sarah and sweet young Leonore, just now learning her ways.
Just like the black, miserable dens of the other Keepers, her house was full of beautiful things. But hers were treasures of the heart, not the jade and silver and gold pieces her peers collected with total indifference, selling them later just because they'd become "antiques" among the humans. They didn't enjoy their priceless jade Buddhas or their Rembrandt drawings or their Egyptian gold. They just used them. She had a gold Buddha a thousand years old, before which she meditated, and twin Rembrandts of herself and her beloved mother. He had captured the sure gleam of their essence, she thought. She gazed often at her mother's wide, almost innocent eyes, at the subtle humor in her lips.
Over the millennia, Miriam had lost both parents and her husband. Her keepsakes of them were at the center of her life.
Rembrandt had known that there was something unusual about the two women who had commissioned him, a sense of independence and self-possession that human women in those days did not have. He had captured it in the proud, yet easy stance of the figures he had drawn, humming to himself as he made tiny pen strokes and smoked a long clay pipe. He had kissed Miriam's hand and said, "You are cold...so cold."
Not only did she enjoy human beings, she took pleasure in human things painting and sculpture, writing and music. She had been an opera buff from the beginning of the genre. She had been at the opening night of a dozen great operas, had been transported by everyone from Adelina Patti to Maria Callas to Kiri Te Kanawa. She remembered the haunting voices of the castrati echoing in the palaces of the Old World.
The other Keepers looked upon humans as animals. Miriam thought that they had souls, that you could feel something leaving their bodies just as they died. It happened while you were all curled up around them, while you were comfortably absorbing their life. A sort of electric charge would seem to come out of them. Only after that would their eyes be totally empty.
They said it was the nervous system shorting out because of the fluid loss. Miriam hoped so. But what if the reality was that men had the souls, not us? If we were the brilliant animals, they the dim angels? That would be an irony, that an animal had created an angel.
When she meditated before her Buddha, she asked these questions: Why do we live so long? Is it because we have been denied a soul? If so, could I trade? And why, O God, if you are there, why are we cold...so cold?
The rest of her kind lived to eat. She ate to live. She spent heavily, just as her family always had. She consumed money without thought, like so much candy or caviar. Her club, the Veils, was the most exclusive in New York. In a strong month, and most of its months were very strong, drugs and liquor would bring in a half-million-dollar profit. There was no cover charge, of course. If you were important enough to enter the Veils at all, you certainly weren't the sort of person who would be expected to pay a cover.
Miriam had been the friend of kings for two thousand years. She had seen their generations rise and fall. She loved them in their pride and momentary lives. She loved their finest things, the jewels and whispering silks, the attention paid to the very rich.
When the wallets of her peers opened, you could practically hear creaking. She had fun; they had their careful customs and their dreary, conservative habits. She wanted meaning from life, they wanted only to keep breathing.
But now, for all their rejecting ways, she needed them. Her plan was to travel to all of the current conclaves, at once charming and, hopefully, seducing a man.
Deep in memory's mist, she'd had a baby. She still remembered the moment of conception as if it were yesterday. For women of her kind, conception was the most exquisite pleasure they could know. At the moment a man's semen fertilized one of your eggs, your whole body reacted with an unforgettable explosion of nerve-tingling delight. Even after all this time, part of her being remained focused on that stunning moment.
They always knew the sex of the baby within them, and she and Eumenes named their boy and fell in love with him from that first, joy-filled night. Then had come the pregnancy, a year of gestation...and the pain and the loss she'd felt as the silent, blue form of her dead infant was laid on her belly. Soon after, her beloved husband also died. Practically nothing could kill them they never got sick, they couldn't. But he had weakened and wasted, and no one knew why. All her love, all her care, was not enough to save her dear Eumenes, not after he stopped eating.
He had grown as narrow and cold as a mummy, but his eyes had continued to glow...as if death had some special meaning, as if hunger had become for him a state of transcendence. She had begged him to eat, had tempted him, had tried, at the last, to force her own blood into his veins.
Was it grief that had killed him, or some greater despair? Like her, he respected the mind of man. Like her, he was unsure about whether or not humankind had ascended to a point that made it evil to prey on them.
Was it evil to be a Keeper? Was taking conscious prey murder? She thought that her husband had starved himself over these questions...and over the blue, hopeless baby he had so gently deposited upon her breast.
The dead may die to the world, but they do not die in the heart. Miriam's side of their love affair had continued on for whole cycles of years. But eventually his memory faded like the encaustic of his face that she'd had painted by Eratosthenes, that hurried little genius, in Alexandria.
Old Alexandria...redolent with the scents of myrrh and cardamom, whispering by night, singing by day. She remembered Cleopatra's hollow palace, and the Academia with its great library. She read all 123 of Sophocles' plays there, and she saw thirty of them performed. How many had survived? Seven, she thought, only seven.
Over all the intervening years, she had not been able to find a man of her own kind to replace Eumenes. Part of the reason was that conclaves only happened once in a hundred years, and they did not court except during conclave. For somebody who lived for the moment, that kind of planning just did not work.
Now she was at the end of her choices. Either she would find someone or she would never, ever give another Keeper to the world.
Keeper children learned in school that humans were bred to appear similar to us on the surface so that Keepers could go among them more freely. In the beginning, they did not look at all similar and were not at all smart. They were little apes with lots of hair and huge teeth. We Keepers have always been as we are, beautiful beyond compare.
Miriam had drifted into the habit of taking human lovers because she was lonely and they were satisfying and the emotional commitment was not great. You found a cute male or a sweet, sensual female the sex mattered not to Miriam, both had their charms and you seduced, softly, gently, with the caressing eye and the slow hand. Then you put them to sleep with hypnosis and opened their veins and filled them full of your blood, and magic happened: They stayed young for years and years. You told them you'd made them immortal, and they followed you like foolish little puppies. Like the dear creature who now kept her home and business in New York, who warmed her bed and hunted with her...the dear creature, so lovely and brilliant and torn by her silly human conflicts. She had almost lost Sarah a few years ago, but had brought her back. The girl should be grateful and compliant, but that was not always the case. Sarah made mistakes. Sarah lived much too dangerously. She was haunted by what she had endured, and Miriam could not blame her. Indeed, she could hardly imagine what it would be like to lie in a coffin like that, slowly deteriorating but unable to die.
Sarah knew that one day the torment would certainly come again. She strove to save herself, using all of her considerable knowledge of medicine to attempt to defeat the process of aging that must slowly consume her, despite the fact that Miriam's blood now flowed in her veins.
To live, Sarah had to prey on man. She was even more tormented by this than Miriam's other lovers had been. Her Hippocratic oath haunted her, poor creature.
Miriam stopped herself. Best not go down that path again. She was always troubled by the tormented lives and horrible deaths of her lovers. The delicious little things were her guilt, her pain.
But not now, not on this nervous, excited night, the opening night of the Asian conclave. At least a proper lover would never die as the human ones did, pleading for deliverance even as their flesh became dust. But she would have to submit to him, obey him, live in his cold cell...at least, for a time.
Her body was her life its rich senses, its wild desires, the way it felt when strong hands or sweet hands traveled her shivery skin.
There would be none of that in her future, not when she was part of one of their households, as she would be expected to be, at least for the duration of her pregnancy. Long, silent days, careful, creeping nights that would be her life behind the walls of their world.
But that was how it had to be. She could almost feel that little body in her belly, could imagine hugging it after it came out, while it was still flushed and coal-hot. Only a newborn or a freshly fed Keeper was ever that warm.
The samlor glided along Moon Muang Road, heading for the Tapae Gate and the temple district beyond, moving through the murky, soaked night. How did the Asians stand this wretched climate? And yet, the heat was also nice. She enjoyed sweaty beds and long, druggy nights doing every decadent thing she could imagine.
The others shunned drugs. They said that they would rather die than become addicted for the thousands of years of their lives. She hadn't had that experience at all. Your blood protected you from all disease and weakness. They were just prejudiced against drugs, which were a human pleasure and therefore assumed to be trivial. But they had never done hash in ginger-scented Tangiers, or opium here in pillow-soft Chiang Mai, the last place in Asia where a good pipe of well-aged opium could be found. They had never smoked lying on silk beneath a hypnotic fan. When the nights were hot and the air was still, she was drawn back to the brilliant oblivion of the pipe. Drugs were less dangerous to enjoy here than in the States. No blustery, narrow-eyed policemen were apt to show up, waving guns and yelling. She'd had to race up too many walls to escape from those annoying creatures.
Well, all that was going to change. She was going to become a proper wife, and she certainly didn't need drugs for that. She wasn't addicted, so it wouldn't be a problem.
She could imagine her man, tall and silent, his face narrow, his skin as pale as a shadow. She could feel him, muscles like mean springs, long, curving fingers that could crush a human's bones or caress her plump breasts. She took a deep breath. These thoughts made her feel as if she were drowning and being rescued at the same time.
The wind rose, sweeping through the dark trees, sending ripples shivering across the puddles that were like lakes in the street. Much lower now, the clouds raced and tumbled. Voices rose from a little market, two girls singing some popular song, oblivious to the samlor that whispered past and to the being within, who was carefully listening to the patter of their heartbeats from a thousand feet away.
Her interest in them told her that the hunger was rising within her. She felt it now, a faint gnawing in her belly, a hint of ice in her veins.
This was bad news. Most of her kind could detect their hunger coming for days, and they could prepare carefully to do a hunt. She'd never been able to prepare. One second she was fine, the next it was starting.
Buddha said it was good to live in the moment. In the Vedas, she'd read that there was only the moment. Her species had no holy books, just records of their possessions. Her mother had told her, "Humans have holy books because they've journeyed closer to God than we have."
She noticed that the smell of the samlor driver was washing over her, blown back by the breeze. She took a deep drag on her strong Thai cigarette, attempting to blot out the delicious scent.
It did not work. Okay, she thought, I'll go with it. She looked at the driver's sweating back. A thirty-second struggle and she'd be fed for another couple of weeks. The thing was, the hotel had written down her destination in Thai for him. He would not deviate from the route. She needed to get him to go down some darker side street. "Speak English?"
He did not respond. So she'd have to jump him right out here if she wanted him, and that would never do. You did your kills in private, and you destroyed all trace of the corpse. Even Miriam Blaylock followed those two essential rules.
The driver's skin rippled, his muscles surged. Mentally, she stripped him of his black shorts and T-shirt. She imagined laying him down upon a wonderful big bed, his penis like a cute little tree branch. She would kiss him all over and hold him closer and tighter, filling her mouth with his salt sweat and her nose with his every intimate smell. Her mouth would anesthetize his skin as the feeding began and in a few delightful moments, his blood would be sweeping down her throat.
She closed her eyes, arching her back and stretching, forcing his smell out of her nose with a rush of air. Think about opium, she told herself, not blood. Later, she would smoke to relieve this damned hunger. She needed to get back to familiar territory before she fed. It wasn't safe to do it in an unknown place.
Too bad her flight to Paris, where the European conclave was held, didn't leave until tomorrow evening.
This Asian conclave would end with dawn, and she'd have liked to have gone straight on to Europe. She could feed easily in Paris; she knew the city well. She'd hunted there recently no more than fifty or so years ago, when it was swarming with Germans.
Of course, she might meet a man here in Chiang Mai. If she did, her new husband would attend to her need for prey during the pregnancy. If she wasn't leaving tomorrow, she'd be staying in Asia a long time.
If she was still alone after this conclave, she'd make her way along Samian Road, then cut into the welter of little streets that concealed a hole-in-the-wall she'd discovered called the Moonlight Bar. Down in the cellar a tiny old woman waited with pipes. Once, there had been thousands of opium dens in Asia. Now only Chiang Mai was left, with two or three small establishments.
At home, she kept her two-hundred-year-old opium in clay pots sealed with beeswax. Her ancient pipes delivered the vapor cool and easy, and Sarah was beautifully trained in the art of preparation and lighting.
She gazed up at the racing moon, thought of New York. It was about noon at home, so the cleaning crew would be at work in the club. Sarah and Leo would be asleep at home, probably in one another's arms...probably in Miriam's own bed, a curtained, canopied heaven made for Nellie Salter, cane-mistress to Sir Francis Bacon, and William Shakespeare's Dark Lady. She'd drunk too much before she died, had Nellie. She'd made Miriam positively giddy.
Maybe the thing to do would be to convince her husband to come back with her. Or, if that proved to be impossible, maybe she would break even that taboo, and bear the child without a male's protection.
Suddenly, a positively sumptuous girl appeared on the sidewalk, her features carved as if by a master, her skin as soft as mist.
"Speak English?" Miriam called to her. No answer. "Parlez-vous français?"
The girl hurried off, disappearing into a doorway. Miriam knew that she appeared enormous and intimidating to these people, an improbable apparition with ash-gray eyes and improbably elegant clothes.
Chanel sent her a couturier and staff each year, and she bought a new ensemble. Still, she was told it was all much too conservative.
It was true enough that her kind had trouble with fashion. Fifty years would pass in a blink, and suddenly you would find yourself wearing the last bustle in the world or the last top hat. That's why the few even slightly accurate stories about them so often portrayed them in antique clothes. Bram Stoker, she thought, must have known a little something about the real thing. How else could he have known to portray his Dracula as such a stodgy dresser?
An odor struck Miriam with the force of a slap. Involuntarily, she hissed. The driver's head snapped around, his eyes wide and white. The scent of human blood had invaded her nostrils, raw and still very much alive. Then she saw why: there was an accident ahead.
A powerful instinct urged her to leap out of the cab and suck the bodies dry while the life force was still there to consume. But this was another instinct that had to be stifled.
As they passed the site, she held her breath. She could not trust herself with the scent of raw blood, not when the hunger was spreading through her body. Her skin was already cooling, making her feel heavy and slow. She'd be as pale as ashes when she got to the conclave. They'd all think, Look at her, she can't even feed herself.
The moon burst out from behind furious clouds. Lightning flickered on the spire of Wat Chedi Luang. The temple spires here in Chiang Mai were so lovely and exotic. She was used to the canyons of Manhattan.
Again the smell of the driver reached her nostrils. This time her body started to prepare to eat, her muscles growing tight for the assault, her mouth swimming in the mucus that would anesthetize her prey.
She took a long, last drag on the cigarette. If you pulled their blood into your gut with sufficient strength, your feed ended with delicious dregs.
"Be sure and get the organ juice, dear," her mother would admonish her. "It makes for strong bones."
Mother Lamia was hard to remember and hard to forget. When Miriam needed to fall out of love with a human, she would use her memory of what humans had done to her mother to help her along. It had come as a great surprise, the capture. When Keepers slept, their bodies reached a state near death. They were entirely helpless. So sleep was carried out in deep hiding, or in those days in great and protected palaces.
A man they had thought a friend had betrayed Lamia. He had been a faithful partner at cards, had been the Graf von Holbein. But it evolved that he was not a petty count but a powerful priest, and his name was not Holbein but Muenster, Father Deitrich Muenster.
Miriam had escaped across the roofs of the little town where they were living. She had not been able to take her comatose mother, nor to hide her. Miriam had expected to remove her from their prison either by bribery or by brute force.
But they had not tried her. They had not even imprisoned her. They had wasted no time. Mother Lamia had awakened already chained to her stake. She realized instantly what was happening. But all of her struggles and strength did not break the chains or topple the stake.
Mother Lamia had stood proud on the pyre they had made for her, her hair flaring sparks into the night. She had stood there for a long, long time, because Keepers could only die when their blood stopped completely.
They had laughed when she screamed, and when they realized that she was dying so unusually slowly, they were even more delighted. Mother had been burned for a witch in 1761, in a village near Dresden. She had been the most alive, the best person Miriam had ever known. She had a fabulous sense of humor. She loved to have adventures, and she loved to dance. Mother introduced Miriam to music sackbuts, violas...her beloved viola da gamba. Miriam had been taught to sing, to read and speak many human languages, so many that she'd lost count. The languages of the ancient world had been works of art, Sumerian and Egyptian and Zolor, among many others. They had been supplanted by Greek, with its sublime verbs, and Latin, which was too rigidly constructed somehow crude. English was a practical tongue. Of the modern languages, Miriam thought that French and Mandarin Chinese stood out as being the most satisfying to speak.
Unfortunately, she had never learned Thai, so she was at a disadvantage here. "Will you hurry, you stupid creature," she growled at the driver in English. He sped up. Her tone needed no common language to make itself understood.
The spires of the temple district rose all around her now. The district bore an ancient enchantment, for it was sacred to her kind, too. Here in the deep eons they had met, ten thousand years ago, fifteen thousand...when the world had been their toy and man a mute race of cattle. Look at the pavements left by her kind, still perfect after all this time. Look at the foundations of Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Chet Yot no human engineer could fashion such precision in stone. Stars curse what had happened among her kind, to make them vagrants in their own world. Give me opium, let me smoke. Let me forget.
She touched the golden key that lay at the bottom of her new purse, the key that would let her into the sanctum in the cellar of the Moonlight Bar. The purse was a Gucci bought at the local night market for 2500 baht. It was a luxurious item and finely made. She didn't need another purse, but she loved to shop and she'd been unable to resist. Every Keeper loved exquisite leather, and calfskin was deliciously close to human...which was very taboo to wear outside the home. The prey might notice something the remains of a tattoo or a human birthmark on your gloves or your pocketbook. Personally, she never wore leather from human skin. They might be prey, but they were sensitive, conscious beings and that had to be respected. But their skins tanned très softly, the flay off a smooth back or buttock.
The samlor driver hunched forward as if some deep instinct was drawing him away from her. The thought again crossed her mind to just jump him. She'd ride him like a little bullock. He would shriek and buck, and it would be a thrill.
His living scent stung the flower-sweet air. Then he turned the samlor, going down a narrow street. It was little more than a passageway, very quiet.
She shoved another cigarette into her mouth and lit it. Closer they came to the ancient temple of Wat Chiang Man, the chedi within it buttressed to the four corners of the world by four gilded elephants.
The samlor stopped. Beneath the chedi, in a cellar no human being had ever entered, was the ancient ho trai of the Asian clans, a place founded before Siddh&hibar;artha was Buddha, indeed before Siddhartha was born. "Stay," Miriam said. "Wait."
An eye took her in. The slightest of nods. She knew that this temple had a reputation among the ghost-conscious Thai. He sat with his head bowed and his feet clicking his pedals.
Her heels clattering on the wet paving stones, she crossed the short distance to the temple, then entered the chedi. Here, it was suddenly quiet. There was a scent of sandalwood and smoke from the single guttering lantern that hung from a rafter, shining on the great Buddha that reclined in the center of the ornate chamber.
She paid respect to the Buddha, drawing her hands together and bowing. Had any of her peers seen her, they would have scorned her utterly.
She ran her fingers along the cunning mortise work, then tapped softly three times, causing the concealed mechanism to give way with a soft click. It was a little surprising, the way the mechanism felt. It was almost as if the lock were sprung. She thought she might have been able to open it just with a push. You'd never find this kind of carelessness in Europe or America.
She went down the steep, curving steps. She didn't need illumination, of course. Theirs was a nocturnal species...miserably enough in this electric era. How her father had moped when the humans had discovered electricity. "We should have kept it from them," he'd said.
Keeper men and women did not live together except during pregnancy and, to some extent, child-rearing. But the love between them could be great, and he had never recovered from the loss of his Lamia. "I find myself searching the world for her," he would say. He'd persisted in doing dangerous things climbing mountains, dueling, and traveling, endlessly traveling. It was death he sought, when he sought the far hills.
Her father had died in the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937 taken like his Lamia by fire. He saved human beings from the flames, and those he helped can be seen in the newsreel film scrambling from the windows as the ship descends. He comes out last, and his form disappears in the fire.
Over and over and over again, she watched that film, longing for one more rolling murmur of his voice, one more touch from his kindly hand.
She stopped on the fourth step. There was sound down below, definitely. Good, the conclave was in session. For most of the Keepers down there, this would be the first contact in a century with any of their own kind. Lovers met in sweet battle, and mothers lived with their children. But for the most part, they were a species as solitary as the spider.
A little farther along, she stopped again. Something she was hearing below did not seem quite right. Her people didn't laugh. She'd never heard anybody laugh except her mother and herself. Not even her dad had done it.
She went a little farther and then she saw something incredible. On the dark wall there was a figure drawn. Or no, it was painted spray-painted. She had to raise her head to see the whole of it. When she did, she saw that it was a crudely sprayed painting of a human penis in full erection.
Farther along yet, there were paper cartons from a restaurant, still smelling of pepper and garlic. Nobody ate human food. They had no way to digest it. Inside, they were not made like humans at all. Liquor, however, was a different story. They could get drunk, fortunately. The others disdained alcohol, of course, but Miriam enjoyed fine wines and adored every form of distilled liquor from Armagnac to Jim Beam.
She moved a few more steps down, getting past the odor of the cartons. Her nostrils sought scent ahead.
Then she stopped. Fear did not come easily to her kind, so she was not frightened by what she smelled, only confused. She smelled humans the dense odor of men, the sweet-sharp scent of boys.
A shock went through her as powerful as one of the lightning bolts that had been tearing through the clouds. She saw, suddenly and with absolute clarity, that the reason for all the odd signs was that there were human beings in this secret place. She was so surprised that she uttered an involuntary cry. The sound shuddered the walls, the moaning, forsaken howl of a tiger at bay.
From below there came a rush of voices, then the wild flicker of flashlights. Footsteps pummeled the stairs, and suddenly two Occidental men and three Thai boys came racing past her, cursing and pulling on their clothes.
Behind them they left a greasy silence, interrupted after a few moments by the scuttle of roaches and the stealthy sniffing of rats. Treading as if her feet were touching sewage, Miriam descended into the sanctum. She growled low, striding about in the filth and ruins.
They must have moved the sanctuary. But why hadn't they told anybody? Keepers might be a solitary lot, but ancient custom dictated that everybody be informed of something so basic as this. Unless was she really that shunned, that they would move a place of conclave and keep only her in the dark?
Surely not. They were far too conservative to alter an ancient convention. So maybe there had been an emergency. Maybe the sanctuary had been discovered and they'd had to move it suddenly.
That must be it. She hadn't gotten the message because there'd been no time.
But then she saw, lying in a corner beneath the ruins of a shattered bookcase, a familiar red shape. She caught her breath, because what she was seeing was impossible. Her skin grew taut, her muscles stirred the predator sensed danger.
She picked up the red-leather book cover and held it in reverent, shaking hands. From the time their eyes came open, Keepers were taught that the Books of Names were sacred. By these books, a whole species knew itself, all who lived and had died, and all its works and days.
That red leather was unmistakable, as was the inscription in the beloved glyphs of their own tongue, glyphs that no human knew. The Names of the Keepers and the Keepings.
They called themselves Keepers because they kept herds. If the rest of the book had been here, there would have been descriptions of the various territories that belonged to the different Asian Keepers and who had the right to use which human herd.
She ran her fingers over the heavy leather. It had been cured from the skin of a human when they were still coarse, primitive creatures. These books were begun thirty thousand years ago a long time, even in the world of the Keepers. But not all that long. Her great-great-grandfather, for example, had been able to imitate the cries of the Neanderthals. Buried in the Prime Keep in Egypt were careful wax paintings of the human figure going back to the beginning.
She crouched to the crumbled mass of paper, tried to smooth it, to somehow make it right. When she touched the pages, roaches sped away. She spread a crumpled page to see if any useful information remained.
The roaches had eaten the ink, what hadn't been smeared by the vile uses to which the paper had apparently been put. She laid the page down on the dirty floor, laid it down as she might lay to rest the body of a beloved friend.
She made another circuit of the chamber, looking into its recesses and crannies, but not a page remained.
She was face-to-face with what was without a doubt the greatest astonishment of her life. Some of the richest and most ancient Keepers were Asian. There had been oh, easily a hundred of them.
She slumped against a wall. Had man somehow done this, simple, weak little man?
Keepers could be hurt by man witness her mother and father but they couldn't be destroyed by man, not this way. They owned man!
She looked from empty wall to empty wall and fully grasped the fact that the Asian Keepers must have been destroyed. If even one was left alive, this book would be safe.
When she grasped this enormous reality, something so rare happened to Miriam that she lifted her long, tapering fingers to her cheeks in amazement.
Far below the crazy streets, in the fetid ruin of this holy place, a vampire wept. ~
The Last Vampire
© 2001 Whitley Strieber
All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster