Chapter Four: The Blood Eagle
Lilith awoke in the man's arms, feeling the delicious tickle of his hand running up and down her thigh. At once she was glad, she was grateful...and she was lonely. His attentions had drawn her to enter what she thought of as her life's dream, which had been unfolding as long as she could remember, of an afternoon in a place of perfect joy.
In this part of the dream she is leaving. To do this, she steps beneath a plum tree covered with blossoms, into its fragrant, bee-humming bower. As she leaves, a man lays his fingers on her cheek and touches her tears. He says, "Only an hour." His strong, sweet voice, when she hears it in her dream, makes her glow with the vanishing light of longing.
She'd heard it just now, "Only an hour." It had become for her the watchword of the eons, this enormous hour.
"You are my passionflower," the man breathed into her ear in his own poetry, his slippery, jaunty Arabic.
Instantly, there came a silent riposte, You are my dinner. She gazed at him, thinking that they did not have such complex faces in the long-ago. "Ibrahim," she breathed, "love me." And he did, oh, he really did. His eyes bulged, and his lips hung slack as he pumped away at her. But he also tried to pleasure her, speeding up, slowing down, watching to gauge it in her eyes. And he did see it, because it was there. He was giving her pleasure, enough pleasure to make her feel a most unaccustomed feeling, which was regret.
She had come to feel a certain tenderness toward him. He sang, he told her stories of his youth among the camels, he bragged to her about his little possessions, his auto, his timepiece, the black "business suit" he kept in a bag. "I am a businessman. In Cairo, I am respected. I must wear such a suit."
She felt him swell within her, saw his eyes flicker as he experienced the little death of coitus. Then he sank down upon her, and she enjoyed his weight. Her pleasure in him was not physical. It was, and this was a surprising truth, a pleasure of the heart.
He rolled off, breathing hard. "Oh," he said, "oh, my. Was it so good for you?" It could not feel for him as it would with a human woman, but he said nothing, so neither did she. She turned to him and kissed the edge of his beard.
In recent years, she had taken less of an interest in the prey species. At home when she fed, she had come to prefer that they bring it to her wrapped in linen and so trussed that it could not even struggle. She would see only the neck, taste only blood drawn from carefully cleaned skin.
She did not want to experience Ibrahim in such a detached and sterile manner. She wanted to take him in the old way, with loving gentleness, even a sweet touch of regret. That was the way to eat, with respect.
But even so, look at his dark and shining eyes. He was so pleased with her, so grateful. Perhaps, as hungry as she was, she could delay a little more. If she began to lose too much strength, she could always just reach over and do him. It only took a moment.
She lay her fingers along his carotid. "Boomboom," she said, "boomboom."
"What do you feel?"
He threw himself on his back and began to laugh silently, his beard bobbing, his face twisted with pleasure that was also pain. "I am not a good Muslim," he said. "I am not a good Egyptian."
"You keep saying that. What would a good Muslim do?"
"Not fornicate. And a good Egyptian would not consort with a djin and bring misfortune on himself and all his family."
"You think me a demon?"
He scoffed. "I know it." Then, suddenly, he rose. She went up, too. They sat face to face, naked, in the smoky light of the one old lamp that lit the caravan. "Your skin is not like ours," he said. He reached out and touched her hand. She looked down at his fingers, then up to his face. In it, she saw a dangerous wonder.
"If I am a djin -- "
"I did not know that such things could be."
" -- you should run for help."
"But your...eyes...I am enchanted."
She did not think that his enchantment was centered on her eyes. "It's dangerous, is it not, to love a djin?"
"It is not something I thought was possible, because there are no djin. But your body is so cold, and you have the name of a great djin."
"The first wife of Adam. She divorced him and spawned a race of demons."
"Adam..." How that name resonated! She had always loved it, had kept it deep in her heart. Adam, a name from her dreams. She repeated it, "Adam..."
"But I am only Ibrahim. Can you ever say 'Ibrahim' with such love?"
She lay back in their ragged sheets, indolent in the lazy light. "I wonder sometimes if ever I knew an Adam. It's a name that's just on the tip of my tongue."
"If you are Lilith the demoness, then perhaps the memory has gotten like that because it is so old. Nobody knows what it would be like to be that old."
She knew how she appeared to them. Cocking an eyebrow, she asked, "Do you imagine that I am old?"
"'Love is from before the light began, When light is over, love shall be...'"
"A foolish Arab wrote it. 'To lighten my darkness, I look for the red crescent of her lips, And if that comes not, I look for the blue crescent of the sword of death.'"
She found this suddenly quite interesting. "You would die for me?"
He nodded, his face mock-solemn.
It made her laugh, and at first he laughed, too, but then became silent. Late into the night, she lay beside him and felt him watching her. She pretended to sleep, and in her false sleep she falsely sighed his name.
Each morning, a boy-child brought dates and milky tea. At noon, Ibrahim went to a tent with the other men, and in the evening servants even more bedraggled than he was came and set up a table beneath some trees, and she and he would sit together. He would eat and watch her, his eyes shining with desire. He observed that she never ate, but asked no explanation.
Now, as she lay beside him for what must be the fourth night, she thought perhaps the time had come to eat. Gravity was controlling her more and more. She was sluggish.
She went up on one arm. There he lay, his face slightly sweated, his form motionless but for the slight rising and falling of the chest. She ran a finger through the curly, graying hair. He stirred a little. His eyes seemed unfocused, as if he was at large in his inner life.
What might he be looking for within himself -- the images of his wives, perhaps? Not likely. When he wept, as he sometimes did, he claimed that he was missing them. "But I have been captured by you, my demoness. I cannot leave."
She gazed at the flame of the lantern. He had trimmed its wick in the afternoon, and it was very steady tonight. It was run, he had said, by the same oil that ran the unhorsed wagon.
His genital organ glowed faintly pink. It was fully engorged with blood. Without speaking, she mounted him and put him in her. Let him have a last run.
The muscles in the edges of his face tightened, making it seem to extend, gleaming, into the lantern light. He had said that he did not like her to do this. It wasn't seemly, he said, for the woman to go boldly on the man. So perhaps, this time, he would want to do violence to her afterward. There was a part of her that enjoyed the illusion of helplessness at the hands of a human being. In her inner world, she would imagine being captured by them, and bound so that she could not move. The idea of being carried by them, of suffering pain from their hands with no ability to prevent it, of being ravished by the hurrying little thrusts of the males -- these thoughts would amuse her -- as indeed, they amused her now.
Tears came into his eyes. But then he expended himself, and sank back. She dismounted him. He made an expression with his face, drawing his lips back across his teeth. Then he sucked in air, hissing like an uneasy snake. "I must pray," he said.
She laid a hand on his breast. "Not now."
"Yes, now. The hour is late. If the others see that I do not pray -- "
"You don't believe any of it."
"But I cannot take the risk of being thought impious. You cannot imagine what they would do, and I don't want to. Already, they have seen that I pray only once in the day. And they see that a djin is here with me. If I do not pray, they will kill us both, I sense it."
"Who is your god? Amon-ra?"
His eyes, subtly clouded, looked upon her with curiosity. But he said nothing.
All of this prayer of his, she wondered, where had it come from? They still had their precious "beliefs," the humans, that were not grounded in fact. Did they not notice the silence of their gods? Well, Ibrahim did. He prayed only for show. She wanted to be impressed with her Ibrahim, but no, not now. Now, things must change. She put aside sentiment.
"Should I pray?" she asked. "Will they think ill of us if I do not?"
"They will think ill of us if you come out of the caravan but to draw and wash and get supplies. If a woman prays or does not pray, what does it matter?"
She found some dates that he had, and fed him one. As he took it between his lips, his eyes closed. "I am seeing you like the star of heaven," he said. He sat up on the side of the bed. "But, you know, where are you from? You came out of the desert. Can it be that demons are real? Is that why you have taken me from my family?"
She laid her lips on his neck. He muttered something -- a prayer, she supposed, to his silent god. When her tongue penetrated the skin, he made a small, internal sound of surprise. She felt intake of breath, then the beginnings of speech in his throat.
She clenched the powerful muscle that encased her stomach, doing it so tightly that a bit of digestive fluid issued from her nose and ran busily down her jaw, hot and swift. Then the muscle unwound, opening her gut with hydraulic smoothness, the suction swooping his blood from his veins. The poetess Ashtar had called it "that movement beneath all others."
He made a long, babbling utterance of mixed confusion and fear, high with question, higher with complaint. Then his tongue began sputtering in his mouth, and his heels drummed the sodden bed. A fly rushed about her lips, frantically seeking the blood that bubbled out.
Ah, nice. An edible little man.
There came tapping. The sudden arrival of other humans didn't concern her, no matter that the moment was inopportune. She laid her hand on Ibrahim's wrist, detected no pulse. Very well, his struggles would raise no alarm. She got up, threw on her great cloak, and opened the door a bit.
The boys had arrived with dinner, lamb in rice. "My master is not disposed," she murmured through the crack in the door. "God is great."
"God is great," the leader of the boys replied. But they lingered. No matter that he was unwell, they still must be paid for the food they had made. To reward each other for services and such, the humans nowadays passed around bits of paper and nondescript metal.
She had no clear idea of the way this all worked. How much should she give them? She went to his leather packet, an ugly little thing made of some sort of extruded material that had been subjected to heat. There were Egyptian pounds in it, numbered in Arabic numerals. Inventive creatures, the Arabs. She took a few out and handed them through the door.
"May God grant you many blessings," the head boy expostulated.
She pulled the door shut and went to tend to the remnant. Ibrahim was dark brown, his skin stretched so tightly on the bones that it shone. He had a lovely clean back. Never one to waste, she took her flaying knife from the pouch where she kept it in her cloak and skinned off the good part, detaching it from the fascia with expert strokes. She rolled it and put it into the inside pocket of the cloak. This would make something nice, perhaps slippers.
She saw some damp in the abdomen, flipped the remnant over, and sucked into it, penetrating the cavity with her tongue, running it about and draining the last.
Now the remnant was crisp. It smelled of rawhide, a dense, musky odor. She began at the feet, crushing the remains and reducing them to powder between her fingers, letting the material flow onto a cloth. In a few minutes, all that remained of Ibrahim was a pile of material not dissimilar to the granules of his everlasting damnable coffee. Wrapping herself against the cold of the desert night, she went out into the oasis, looking for a disused fire.
There were quite a number of the poor in this place. Many of the people here were without even a tent, and she knew that eyes were watching her from beneath the piles of cloth that lay here and there near the guttering fires. Ibrahim said that they thought her a djin. Well, they were not so far wrong, were they?
She went to one of the fires, where there was a coffeepot steaming near some coals, and dusted them with the powder. Ibrahim sparked merrily into the sky, his red-hot crumbs twirling up in the smoke. So there he went, with his pink organ and golden brown skin, and his poetry. His hair gave the smoke a displeasing pungency. She moved quickly back to their hut.
Inside, she prepared for her journey, drawing her heart closed to the misfortunes she might observe along the road, or what she might find at the end of her quest. It was disturbing that her people had abandoned her. The reason had to be discovered and understood. She very definitely sensed a threat.
She'd come to understand that, just across the mountains from here, lay Cairo, which, she now knew, had displaced Thebes.
Moving about under the eyes of the human creatures was eerie. She walked out into the desert a short distance. She felt quite good now, with Ibrahim's life spreading through her body. She'd been as dry as sand inside.
A glance at the stars told her exactly where she was on the planet -- just forty royal miles south and east of Giza. In that direction, the sky glowed as if with perpetual sunset. She could not imagine that the glow could be a human nest, but apparently it was Cairo. If this was true, then it had grown to be the greatest city of the earth, and meant that Egypt had retained the ancient importance she had given it in the world of men. Giza was on the far side of the Nile. In the past, only little Tanis had been on this side of the river, in the desert below Heliopolis.
She considered how to get into Cairo. Forty miles would be a long, but not an impossible, walk. However, Ibrahim's chemical wagon could get her there in a matter of minutes. He had said so himself, by traveling the black wax road eastward.
She approached the thing, drew her cloak around her linen gown, and peered at it. If a human being could control this wagon, she could do it too, and far better. She had observed the various movements Ibrahim had made while directing it about. If she made the same movements, she would succeed. She returned to their caravan and removed the key from his trousers, which lay upon the floor.
As she crossed the dusty clearing, she heard a child's voice whisper, "The djin is getting in his car."
It still made her uneasy, this cunning machine. Nevertheless, she worried the lock, inexpertly rattling it. Shadows began moving about in the oasis, and she heard somebody calling for Ibrahim. A shuddering, uneasy thrill passed through her.
Then the door came open. She entered the thing in the driving position, found the keyhole, and inserted the key. Out in the darkness, a voice shouted, "Ibrahim, Ibrahim." She waited a moment for the key to work, but no sound issued from the wagon. There had been a hand motion involved, which she emulated, turning the key. At once, the mechanism began to chatter. Bobbing lanterns appeared in the darkness. "Stop," shouted a male.
Now what? Use the feet, pressing the pedals in sequence. Move the hand on the lever. However, when she duplicated these actions, the machine went backward, and at significant speed. She sat in the proper position, but the backward motion did not cease. Wondering at it, she watched the lights of the oasis disappear into the dust cloud spread by the rushing wheels.
The gradient changed. She was backing into the mountains. Soon, the oasis would be many miles away. It occurred to her that the device would not stop if it came to a cliff. It had no mind, and she could not see to direct it. She turned the key again, and in a moment, was rewarded with the stopping of all motion and sound.
Now, where had she come to? A mile, perhaps, due south of the oasis. She had not known that the thing would go backward. What had happened was in some way related to the pressure she had put on the pedals, and the manipulation of the lever. She should have realized that the movements of the lever were not arbitrary. It was hard to remember that machines only did as they were commanded. They were not unruly, like horses and mules.
She sat for a moment. How was it that the humans had created such an object as this? It might be the only one, of course, the work of some peculiar genius. Certainly not Ibrahim. He would have bought it from the genius with some of his paper bits. However, what genius would sell such a wonderful thing to an idiot? Surely Great Cairo would offer more desirable buyers than her little rodent of the desert.
Again, she set the fire within the thing. It consisted, this fire, of a series of explosions, she could hear that. The odor of its burning was not pleasant. Ibrahim had given over Egyptian pounds for the liquid to run the wagon, to a man who had carried it in tin jars slung upon the backs of camels.
This time, the thing went forward, clanking and jerking first, then sounding and moving more smoothly as it gathered speed. She learned to make it go a certain speed by keeping the pedal pressure steady. He'd had lights that lit it at night, but they impeded her vision ahead, so she left them off.
The others at the oasis must already be aware that something was amiss with Ibrahim. She would not return to the oasis. Instead, she would go north and west, toward Cairo.
He had used that waxen road before, and now she sought it again. For quite some time, she did not see it. But then the wagon shot up a berm and out into the air. With a great, rattling crash and a growl from within, it landed on the black material. It would have gone all the way across, except Lilith brought it to a halt using the pedals, which was quite easy to do. Actually, the thing was easier than a horse. Horses had always been something of a curse for her kind. They were apt to become uneasy, to bolt unexpectedly, and otherwise draw attention to the fact that they were frightened.
She descended from the wagon, bent down, and ran her hand along the black wax. It was quite warm to the touch, and filled with pebbles. An interesting substance. She bent closer, sniffed it. Pungent, smelling faintly of the same liquid that burned in the lamps and the wagon. This was all alchemized from petroleum, she thought. They had sprayed a thick petroleum on stones, and made from this a path that would not be much affected by rain. A thinner petroleum, perhaps a boil-off of some sort, had been condensed into fuel. There were pools of this ichor south of Thebes, a day's journey into the desert. That was where they must have gone.
At that moment, and without warning, a great noise arose. Huge lights bored into her face. She realized that something was going to strike her in seconds. Reflex caused her to leap into the air. As she went flailing down into the dust of the berm, an immense machine went past her. She glimpsed curtains in windows, and sleeping humans within, in rows of seats. Then the thing was gone, bleating off down the path like a ram in heat.
She looked after it. How could something so large move with such speed? It had shocked her so much that she was trembling like an innocent child -- which was absurd. She forced herself to stop. Very well. Now she returned to the wagon of Ibrahim, got in it, and began proceeding again toward Cairo. She did not care to move at such high speed, because it felt as if the breath would be pulled from her lungs. She kept it at what felt like the speed of a fast camel or a good team of horses. She did not use the lights, because she could see easily with all this moonlight.
Nevertheless, light filled the compartment. Then a horrible bleating broke out behind her. She glanced around to see a massive silver jaw not three feet from the rear of her wagon. This thing sailed back and forth in the road, bleating and snarling. Shocked by its size and its aggression, she turned the wheel on hers and it went away to the far side of the road. A truly gigantic machine passed her, making her wagon rock and shudder. The driver cried out, "Son of a diseased whore!" and made a gesture with his fingers. She felt anger tighten the skin of her cheeks, felt her skin grow colder than the desert night. Had the arrogant little creature that was riding the giant come within her grasp, she would have sucked it as dry as sand and thrown the husk into the face of the night.
The wind left by the giant slowly died away. The thing could have crushed her. It would have brought terrible wounding, followed by lingering years of agony. They would have buried her in the ground, where she would have remained conscious, waiting.
Perhaps it was that Ibrahim had the smallest wagon. The enormous ones were normal. This was why their drivers were so aggressive. They were not used to seeing such a small one. She would cause it to go more quickly, and would use the lights to give the night-blind human beings warning of her presence. She wondered if the wagons grew like plants.
She traveled on for a time, and for this time the road remained absolutely dark. It was eighth month, and the seven stars of the Pleiades lay low on the horizon.
Then the wagon mounted a long rise, and there appeared before her one of the most magnificent sights she had ever beheld. No matter how dark the cave of memory, such a vision as this would never be forgotten. Stretching from the southern to the northern horizons was an ocean of lights, as if the stars had grown so fat that they had come down to rest themselves upon the earth. She stopped the wagon. For some little time, she stared through the glass screen. Then she stepped out and stood with the wind in her face, her hood down her back, absorbing the wonder.
Re-Atun had never told her of this formation. When she had come to Cairo before, she had seen nothing like this. But what was it? Who would make such a thing? Who could? It was this strange decorative creation, or artwork, that had been making the sky glow, not the human place that was invisible beneath its brilliance. The wax path led straight down and across a plain, into the dancing forest of the lights.
When she began to draw closer, things seemed to be not as they had at first appeared. The glimmering mass -- it wasn't an artwork at all, but something much stranger. When she began to see specific buildings, houses on the roadside, she realized that the jewel-like points of light were coming from sparks that had been captured in glass. Had man learned to take crumbs from the sun, then, in preference to the torch, the candle, and the lantern?
The closer she got to Cairo, the more her wagon was surrounded by others. She soon discovered that they came in all shapes and sizes. Quite a few were as small as Ibrahim's. Some were even larger than the ones she'd seen in the hills. In addition, buildings were springing up on both sides of the path, and people were moving about in numbers.
Seeing the wealth of food around, she thought perhaps she would eat again, a small one or maybe two, to fill her completely after her long hunger. She wished that Re-Atun was here to help her, and began to feel a distinct anger that he was not. It was his duty, to serve the mother of them all. Why was he ignoring his duty?
The wagon had come into a densely populated area. The place was richly scented with human smells, the odor of skin laced with whiffs of sweat and urine, and the deeper odor of offal that rose from grates along the edges of the path.
The place was rushing, complicated, and, above all, bright. Colorful strips of light flashed, globes glowed -- it was all very different from the lamplit world of man. The Keepers preferred shadows, so they would certainly not be seen in this glaring, onrushing maelstrom of light-flooded activity.
The place positively teemed with people. In fact, the scent of all this flesh was putting an edge on her appetite, a strong edge. Ibrahim now seemed like not nearly enough.
How strange she felt right now. But she did remember his smiles, and the gratitude in his eyes when she had given him pleasure.
Wiping her cheeks of the moisture there, she decided to stop the wagon and get one of the creatures and eat again. She'd take a small one, just a tidbit. When she'd gone abroad in Thebes, taking a babe had caused some wailing from the woman, nothing more than that. Human children died so often, they made little of their deaths.
When she stopped her wagon, all the others behind her began bleating and flashing. She opened the door, rose to her feet, and drew her cloak tight. Then she lifted her hood, putting her face in shadow. Best to take some precautions. Sometimes the woman would complain more than others. She'd need to blend into the crowd, then.
She swept through the tangled mass of wagons, into a side path upon which many men and a few women walked. It was not seemly for one of her station to look behind her, but she began to get the sense that the people she was passing were turning to watch her. A snapping glance revealed people with narrowed eyes. Beggars stopped their pleas in midsentence, merchants stepped back into their doorways, slipping away among their sheaves of scarves and hanging masses of rugs.
She turned down a crooked path between enormous buildings, great boxes that smelled as if they were literally packed with humans. The commotion of the big path died away behind her, and she decided that she would not return to Ibrahim's wagon, not face that tangled, glaring chaos of humanity.
Then, suddenly, she was in a tiny square filled with peace. The sight of a fountain in the center of the square for an instant split her heart with a shaft of memory so sweet and so ancient that she actually cried out. She stopped, momentarily stunned. What was this recollection? And this agony -- an agony of love, where was it from?
There was singing, soft, echoing in the silence. Two little girls were sitting beside the dry fountain, girls in patched gowns, with little scarves covering their hair. Her heart in turmoil, her mind full of the confusions of this new city and the powerful and unexpected emotion she had just experienced, she went almost automatically forward. One of the girls looked up at her, and she saw the child's eyes and was horrified -- mankind had changed! Look, the child was awake, full of spirit. Still, by instinct, she did what her body demanded, and lifted it to her mouth and locked onto its warm, sweet neck. She took it with a powerful gulp. The remnant crackled to bone and disappeared into its clothes. A child's thin gristle was not strong enough to hold the skeleton together, and the bones, tight-sheathed by the skin, came tumbling out of the bit of cloth the thing had worn, and scattered about Lilith's feet.
The other one spoke, a quick question that Lilith did not quite understand. It had wonderful, smooth skin. It was so beautiful, she thought she had never seen such an exquisite face. She took it and held it to her lips, and the perfume of its skin filled her nostrils. She hunted for the tiny artery with her tongue. But then -- then --
She drew her head back. The child turned to her, and laid upon her lips a kiss as soft as the wing of a dove. The fountain -- she saw it alive, pure water bubbling, in it the blue fish of home and childhood.
Childhood! O, she had played by such a fountain. And somebody had said -- had said -- "I will wait for you...."
She put the exquisite child down. It looked up at her with sparkling, vastly intelligent eyes. Secretly in the eons, the human soul had rowed far upriver from its animal origins, much farther than she had thought. This was no blank creature of the past, this was a conscious being.
Her gut wrenched, the taste of the blood she'd just eaten threatened to sicken her. She mourned within herself for dear Ibrahim and for the girl whose life she had just consumed.
An extremely bright light flashed, and a woman's voice was raised in frantic babble. As the words changed to shrieks, Lilith began to move off. She went down a crack of an alley, looking for Keeper sign. A city like Cairo would be honeycombed with secret Keeper passages.
She found one, just an irregular two bricks in a wall. Pressing them with the heel of her hand, she opened a narrow door to an equally narrow passage and went in.
The silence here was tremendous, the darkness absolute. She reached out and rubbed the wall, bringing up the soft glow of the paint they used to make the little light that they needed in places like this. Ahead, a passage went curving off. She hurried along it, soon finding the exit. She'd hoped that this led to greater tunnels, but apparently she'd hit on nothing but a short escape route. Very well, she exited.
She could not be far from where she had started, but hopefully far enough. She was before a large building, perhaps a palace, distinguished by tall spires. She could do with a palace, with its abundance of pure water and its bathing-maids. Her heart hammering, she made for the entrance.
As she was crossing the square that lay before it, she heard a bird of a kind she had not seen in many, many years, a great eagle, dark of wing, which had once ranged the Valley of the Nile. These birds had taken the children of men, and rent them with their beaks, while the parents ran along below wailing in the rain of blood. She looked up, expecting to see one of the creatures fall on some loose tot, but instead a small wagon filled with men came whizzing into the open space. The wagon's lights were flashing blue and red, and it was uttering this scream from its stiff silver mouth. Was there a bird in the wagon, or had they somehow taken its cry? And why?
She watched curiously as the wagon sped past her, stopped in a cloud of dust, then wheeled around. She moved toward the palace, from which a guardian began crying a warning in Arabic. He was atop a high tower. "God is most great," he cried, "I testify that there is no god except God. I testify that Mohammed is the messenger of God...." And she thought, Him again. She had decided that Mohammed must be the pharaoh of this time. Perhaps he was even within this palace. She would go to him.
At that moment, there came a cr-a-a-k that echoed through the open space before the palace, causing ordinary birds to rise from their roosts and swirl about in a terrified flock. The sound had emanated from a man in brown clothing. He was pointing a small stick at her and calling out, "Come here, in the name of God. We are the police wanting you."
She did not understand the word police. In any case, she did not come at human command. She ignored the cry. It came again, and then another crack of sound. The birds continued swirling about in the darkness. The man in the tower finished his melodious call and withdrew. Lilith mounted the wide steps that led into the palace. Another voice shouted, "It's desecrating the mosque," and there were more cracks.
Then she was flying. She was flying quite far and high, it seemed. But no, she was falling. She put a hand out and steadied herself, but fell heavily upon the steps she'd just been climbing.
There was an odd sensation in her. For some time, she lay trying to understand why she was not walking, and what this sensation actually was. Finally, she realized that she had been knocked to the ground by something that had struck her in the back, and the sensation was pain.
There was the sound of running behind her. Pain or no pain, she went to her feet. Three men, all dressed in identical brown, were pounding across the wide plaza, coming toward her. She watched them with mild interest. The blow she had felt and the fall she had taken were still a matter for wonder. Had they struck her? If so, how, from such a distance? Their arms were not long, and she saw no bows in their hands, nor quivers at their backs. So how?
Then flame spat from the end of one of the sticks that they carried, instantly followed by a wind beside her head. So they were slings, and she had been hit by one of the stones. The little devils were trying to hurt her, and from the pain in her back, they had.
She took a deep breath, heard bubbling coming from within. They had pierced her with a projectile slung from the devices, the fire-spitting slings. But why? She had done these creatures no harm.
From out of a side alley there came women, all laid over with shrouds, all running along, wailing and crying out, "There she goes, stop her, stop the monster."
Again the slings made their explosive sound. Lilith felt a stone pass her face so close that it left behind it a hot wind. She rushed along the steps but did not enter the palace. Better, when being chased, to leave as many paths open as possible. She would rather dare the night than enter an easily searched warren of rooms.
But she was being chased. How incredible. How fearful. Gangs of humans could chop you up, burn you. It had occasionally happened to Keepers, as she was well aware. She needed sign, she needed to find the house of Re-Atun.
She looked for more sign, but saw nothing. There was darkness ahead, however, so she went that way. Here was a fruit-seller's stall. She recognized some of the fruits, but not all. There were red and yellow and green fruits, golden fruits, fruits with textured skins, and fruits gleaming like ceramics. It seemed to her that this must be the best-stocked fruit-seller's stall in the world. How odd a coincidence, to happen upon what must be a famous place. She passed into the stall, where sat a man in a turban doing the "smoking" that had so pleased Ibrahim, and sipping hot liquid from a glass. He glanced up at her and asked, "Where are you going?"
She didn't answer. A moment later, in fact, she heard the cries of the wagon of the angry men, and then also a cry from the fruit-seller, who went outside and began to shout, "The thief is here, the thief is here."
She was slowed by the complexity of the surroundings. Moving blindly, not knowing which door led where or which alley would aid her escape and which thwart it, she nevertheless continued ahead. The wound in her back continued to give her pain. She could feel the stone lodged in her skeleton, making every movement a torment.
Then, very suddenly, there was a feature she recognized immediately, that she could never forget and that had been there since she had first walked in this place, when Egypt was a land of green grass and trees. The sight of the Nile almost shattered her composure. She sobbed, a sound that amazed her so much that it momentarily pushed aside her pain.
Her own kind had always lived along the Nile, in houses that communicated to the tunnels that led to Giza, and the halls of conclave and record that lay deep beneath the pyramids. It had been thus in the days of Thebes, and it would be thus now. She looked up and down the long, curving quay, and soon found signs of her own kind. Yes, they were here. Of course they were. In this greatest of human places, the Keepers would be in secret control of everything. That was the way the world worked, as she had intended it to work.
In the distance, she could hear the little wagons as they rushed about, trying to find her. Cairo, however, was a maze that made Babylon look simple, even when one could not find Keeper tunnels. She had crossed into alleys that could only be negotiated on foot. Even so, she looked up and down the open space, searching for more of the little men with the stone or dart throwers. If those things were to strike her head, it would be very dangerous.
Pain. Danger. How amazing. She moved quickly along, going to a place in the quay where the bricks of its wall were laid in a subtly different pattern. Standing there, she faced the buildings across the road, looking at their bases. And yes, she saw another variation in pattern there, a balustrade that had a row of carvings of fruits on it, one of which, looked at in a certain way, could be seen as an arrow.
At last, she had come to the house of Re-Atun. Now he would answer her questions and give her shelter. Now, she would be safe. She trotted across the street, moved in the direction indicated. Re-Atun would gaze at her with such fondness that it would make her anger melt.
She went down the steps, one two, into the fetor of the lower alleyway. At this level, it was designed to be unappealing, to appear abandoned. She felt along the seventh seam of the wall's masonry, then made the intricate series of movements that served as a key.
There was silence. Nothing. She stepped back. She had not opened this door before, but all doors opened to all, so this one --
It swung in toward darkness absolute. She stepped in, quickly pushing it closed behind her. Speaking in her elegant, perfectly articulated Prime, she called on him to come forth.
This time, the silence was confusing. Could it be that she had, by some bizarre coincidence, come here while he was out foraging? She felt along the low ceiling to the light, then rubbed her palm quickly back and forth until the sensitive phosphors painted there glowed.
A face, leering. Gray objects dangling below it, oozing with some sort of life form. And -- were those wings? No, they were not wings. The chest had been split open and lifted, exposing the lungs and heart, which were seething with maggots. The lower body was laid open as well, the long, curling gut tied into a hangman's noose. The body itself was riveted to a thick metal wall, where once, she suspected, there had been an elegant door leading into the subterranean palace of Re-Atun. She stepped back, too horrified at first to utter a sound. In her immense life, this was among the most repulsive things she had ever seen. But what, exactly, was it? She peered closer, looking directly into the rotted face, trying to understand.
NO! She reeled, turning away in loathing from the slowly struggling body, away from the awful, seething whisper that had started up in the lips, that she knew were words, "Kill me...kill me..."
He was still conscious enough to know to whom he spoke, because his Prime was formal with respect.
Her immediate impulse was to run, but she dared not. What had happened here? Oh, he had been split -- and she knew the torment. It was called the blood eagle, the opening of the chest of a living creature, an ancient way of torturing one who could not die. Some ancient flags -- that of the Russian czars, for example -- displayed the blood eagle as a warning to the Keepers.
She could kill him, though, using her ancient and intimate knowledge of their kind.
"Who did this?"
The lips remained frozen. They would speak no more. But the eyes, the eyes seemed to look right through her. She turned around. On the distance, she heard the banshee wailing of many more of the little wagons, and the cries of hurrying humans.
To destroy a Keeper, you needed fire and time, and she had neither. Where she was standing right now, this very spot, was a death trap. She leaned close to him, into the stink and rotted vileness of his black flesh, bearing the mites that rushed onto her skin. She opened the flower of her lips, and a dying goddess kissed a living corpse. Then she stepped back. The whole flesh of him, the whole bone, seemed to twist on the spikes that held it to the wall. "Re-Atun, beloved of my womb," she whispered, but then stopped. She could say no more.
He knew, and she knew, that this would be his last chance at mercy, maybe forever. She looked about, wishing that she could open the skull, could reach in -- but the wailing ground down just outside, and the voices became sharper, more crisp. They had her, and they knew they had her. Of course they did: she had gone straight into their trap.
Copyright © 2002 by Whitley Strieber