“Rise,” Sylvia and Maya make a chord. “Summanus, we have need of you.”
Ankles black with mud splash the puddle I lay in.
“He’s hurt,” Jenny declares, and they exchange some words. I do not care.
There seems nothing worth hearing, and nothing worth saving. There is only decay – the ends of things written in their matter, their beads and bits, with letters of cracked white.
A hand grips my hair and turns my head out of the water. Mud floods out of my mouth.
Sylvia’s face hovers an arm’s length away and her blue eyes push into mine. Her bloody palm rests on my cheek. Deformed knuckles make her fingers odd lengths, but their touch burns hot.
There are mars in her face, in her eyes, her lips, her skull. The spirit on her back lowers its lips to her neck and sinks white teeth into a bleeding bite-mark there. It must draw power from Sylvia as it drew power from me, but I can’t see it. All I see is death. The world is wretched. I want to die.
Sylvia kisses me.
Blue moves. Her lips are hard, hot, the kiss is cold. Rain lashes at us and the sky flickers. Her fingers coil against my scalp. The blue explodes in my body. My pain vanishes as if a switch were hit.
Then she’s stood up and moved past me, leaving behind the glint of the spirit’s mad eyes and the metal drum of my heartbeat in a body cold and heavy with mud.
Rain falls on my face. Another explosion flashes against low-hanging clouds. The monkeys and dogs watch with a hundred pairs of golden eyes in dripping animal faces. The shrine totems seem to weep.
The despair is gone. She turned it off.
My lips tingle but the hard kiss leaves behind a trickle of cold rain. I lift my arms to marvel at their lightness, but the weight of fatigue still drags them. I lever myself to my knees. I stand. Though breath fills my lungs, I hardly feel alive.
Jenny’s white eyes whirl. “It’s not gone,” she says. “Nothing’s changed.”
She’s crouched, half-covering herself with crossed arms. Above her white flowered creepers coiled round the spread arms of the tree sift the rain. A tiny bird perches among those flowers, huddled in a woven nest. The pistol clutched in Jenny’s claw hand is a silhouette against a patch of pale shoulder and the wet mask of her golden hair. The mars have thinned. She shines.
“She wrapped a blue pattern around the briars,” she says. “But you’re not- it’s not better. Whatever was hurting you is contained in something.”
The boom and crash of the temple collapsing half a block away turns my attention to Sylvia, who stands at the bottom of the monkey shrine, looking up at the open mouths that pour rainwater and light.
“Where’s it gone?” I ask her. “The shining thing. The diamond. Where did it go?”
“Away from us who might harm it,” Sylvia and the spirit chime together, without turning from the waterfall. “To tear it open. To let it loose.”
Jenny stands at my shoulder. “The diamond is what’s making the dead move?”
“Almost,” I answer. “The diamond is a door into a prison. Agafya weakened the door, and when he died, the thing inside used the dead in the temple to pry it open further. That’s the face that took Agayfa’s body.”
“Face? On Agafya?” Jenny’s lips twist. “I see a finger – a long clawed finger from the diamond, wearing Agafya’s corpse like a finger puppet. What can we do?”
I’m shivering in the cold, but it doesn’t feel like my body. The coat sticks to muddy skin. It itches.
Sylvia and the spirit are silent. Tiny movements of Sylvia’s arms look like the jerk of a spider-web with something caught in it.
“I can break it. The face-thing. Get me into arm’s reach,” I try to focus my eyes on whatever subtle energies move between the spirit and Sylvia, but I see nothing but the two cracked bodies – Sylvia standing, and Maya with teeth sunk in her neck.
“For twenty thousand years it has bathed in kalagni; will yours do any harm? You must do the other thing, and you are not ready. This test is for us.” Though the spirit’s mouth doesn’t move, their voices chant together. “What is loose now is but a servant. We may yet catch it, boil out its unlife, and cast it back into the prison. Perhaps we will meet this test. If we do not – if we fail – then and only then will remain no hope but one: to end the diamond. Repeat so that we know you understand: If we die, then you will break the door.”
“Burn out it’s unliving? What does that mean?” I ask, but Jenny interjects:
“Sylvia, what’s going on with you? Are you alright? What can we do?”
One of the tank engines roars. Its gun blasts apart a police car in the street, sending a sheet of dark smoke through the rain and a hail of metal and glass that pelts the shrine wall. Several monkeys tumble from the top with wails of pain.
The combined voice is a dirge: “Watch well. Stand ready. Now is the hour of sacrifice.”
Then she steps into the rushing waterfall from down the alter, reaches up to the leering monkey faces, and begins to climb.
“Wait- but what are you doing?!” I call after, but they pay me no mind. Though the water drips in a steady torrent, they climb twice Sylva’s height in the moment between the lightning’s flash. I sigh: “She never waits.”
Jenny shivers and her face is cold and pale, her lips pressed together. The knuckles which hold her gun are white, but she makes no move to stop her sister, and says no word to halt her.
She sees me looking and reads my face. Her eyes chill me like a winter wind.
The soaking coat is a cold embrace and the water trickling through the itching mud on my legs is as chill as the Cho Phraya, but those don’t bother me. The death around, behind and ahead of us is a river deep and dark, but the city will endure it. The river rises, and the river falls.
We will survive.
That thought strikes like lightning. I smile.
Jenny breathes as deep as the night. A well of living green coils behind her skin. Deep in her pale eyes swirls that web of mystic hue, the same cocktail of life and death in the heros, much as she must see in mine.
I cannot discern her aura to see what memories she holds now, but I do recall the grey day she spoke of, when the portent of rain took her sister away from her. The fingers of her left hand curl around her left bra strap and her right hand rests the gun’s top against her neck.
Twice she starts to say something, twice she says nothing, and then she turns to look up at the temple.
“I don’t know what’s about to happen.” The words tumble from my lips. “The more you look for something, the more you see it. If you can find the mars, the flaws, whatever they look like to you, then you can use them to destroy things. But don’t look too hard for flaws. You’ll find them until they’re all you see. When the world seems too much, too bright, too full of memory, color, and meaning, or maybe to empty of any of those, then do something that puts you back in your body. Run or touch someone. Remind yourself of where your spirit lives, of life and flesh and your heart beating. That will help you back from the madness, memory, and death.”
My litany washes over her and I have no idea if she hears any of it. Rain trickles off her nose. She grips her gun.
“Wow,” she says, frowning. “That answered none of my questions. I have more now.”
Her head shakes and I can’t tell if there are tears in the spray of water from her hair but her breath is almost a gasp.
Her hand covers my mouth, but her gaze stays at the temple’s base. “Tell me we didn’t do this,” she says. “I don’t care if it’s true. Tell me we didn’t unleash this horrible thing and get all these people killed, and her whole world torn apart.”
A slow breath steadies my racing heart. She lifts her fingers from my lips but leaves them between us. Behind her, many hands rattle the shrine’s iron gate.
I say: “We’re gonna kill this monster, save her, and save the world.”
Her white eyes glow in the dark beneath a starburst scar, and her lips curl in the haunting of a smile.
“Thanks,” she whispers. “Don’t die.”
The sky begins to spin.
A boom and rumble which might be thunder is the crash of a tank through one of Bitter Flower’s walls. It resounds across a wind-tossed city. The fire in the temple spreads. Orange, curling fingers rise to meet the wet hand of the storm.
I blink to clear my eyes and when I’ve looked again Sylvia stands at the tip of the shrine’s spire, on the shoulders of the highest monkey in the pyramid. Green power runs up the shrine stones – torrents of twisting memories: the priests in saffron robes sweeping, the offerings of incense and fruit, weddings, funerals, songs sung, the patter of children’s feet playing with the dogs, and legion upon legion of stranger memories, almost familiar but not quite; food, shiny things, itching, and family – the memories of animals climb the temple in a rising sea of power.
As that light reaches her, Sylvia throws her arms back and lifts her face to the falling water. Her hands shake. Her black jacket whips around her and her hair is a tangled flag.
With a wet tearing, the spirit on her back splits her open like a wallet and wriggles inside. As their skins touch, blue and green power fountains against the sky. The spirit pushes into Sylvia’s body, mingling their flesh like dye in water.
The monkeys scream and fling sticks and stones into the storm. The dogs throw their howls at the sky as if defying it to strike back.
The spirit spreads her arms down Sylvia’s, her legs into Sylvia’s, and her peacock eyes blaze bright behind the blue of Sylvia’s. Around them the storm crashes. Power ripples in that enjoined body and in a flash of lightning two are gone, and one remains – a gold-skinned statue at the shrine’s pinnacle, straight and terrible. The storm wraps around her so the jacket warps with running water into a rippling gown of saffron and blue. In her body the lines of life energy spread blossoming vines like fireworks, that ripple down her hair and festoon that dark wave with lotuses. She opens wide her arms, robed in smoke, storm, and night, and stands as if inviting embrace, a many-colored beacon of life in the flicker of lightning, and fire, and rain.
Then she sings, and all thought ceases.
Her voice splits the thunder. All around on every side thousands of birds rise from the city as dark specks darting among the raindrops. Their voices, the roar of wind, the howls of dogs, and screeching of monkeys from every side all lilt into her chord, and that tone, half chant and half symphony, sounds louder than the storm.
Enraptured, we stand watching. I wish to go to her. There is no beauty but this.
Then the shining one answers.