It doesn’t feel real.
Somewhere beneath us stone grinds against stone. A carved screen between the outer and lotus rooms falls to crash amid the pillows and blood, loosed in the conflict and at last giving way. A trickle of blood runs down the golden gilded carvings around the door. Rain patters against the roof. Everywhere the memory of the temple burns against the still teeming rivers of empty, all of which madness fades slowly into air wracked with the moans of the dying as the agonies of my body close out my second sight.
It worked. The heros worked.
Despite everything a smile blooms on my lips as I go to Jenny’s side.
“How are you?” I ask her. “When I first woke up I could see the insides of every blade of grass, and that was just a Chicago graveyard. This place must be wild.”
She doesn’t answer. With her eyes closed, she disarms her captured pistol. It looks like the one Sylvia dropped. Then her fingers find mine and grip like claws. A starburst scar in her forehead seems like a surface of clear water under which swims the memory of the still open and bleeding bullet hole. I blink and try to banish the sight, but it won’t retreat further.
Jenny says: “I missed his head.” She opens her eyes in little bursts, as if trying to adjust to too much sunlight. The black of her pupils hides her irises. A long breath fills her lungs like a rising tide. “Thought I’d shot you. Got one in his gut maybe but, are you really here? That really you?”
“Sure am,” I tell her. “And so are you. Pretty neat considering you were shot in the head. I gave you some of the same drug that brought me back. Now you’re seeing things how I do. First time I opened my eyes was a kick in the face. Hang in there.”
Each breath relaxes her, but not her grip on my hand. She tilts her head away. Tears make jagged lines in the dust on her cheeks.
“Gonna lean on you,” she croaks, and gathers her legs.
“Sure,” I tell her, and slip an arm under her shoulders.
She takes a handful of my coat and pulls herself to her feet. My legs almost give out at the weight. Then she buries both hands in the cloth of the coat and her eyes against the lapel.
The world Jenny’s woken to isn’t ordinary at all. The temple’s anima fades into the light – brilliant cascades of memory from every surface are consumed by the rivers of empty like vast streamers of colored silk burning in hot sunlight. Even as I watch, the last colors flicker, and here and there in the tumult bits of normalcy return like ash on dying embers.
“Mark,” Jenny says, “you’re naked under your clothes.”
“Most folk are,” I tell her, wondering why of all places she’s decided to look down my coat’s collar. “It’s impolite to take too much notice.”
“Why is there a ghost on you? Why are you covered in blood? Our plan worked?”
“Yes and yes,” I say. “The gore’s a bit of a story, and it seems like most people have a few ghosts. I’ll tell you all about it when we’ve got the time. What you need to know is not to let the white power touch you. It will burn away your memory and self and leave you as good as dead, a pawn to the enemy’s power.”
“Like in the market.” She closes her eyes again.
Down in the lotus room, Drydus stands. Blood flows freely from his scalp, making a tree-root shaped stain down his pale chest. He has one of the fallen warriors in his arms, a small girl with what looks a lot like Jenny’s colt woodsman gripped tightly in her white-knuckled fingers. She was one of those who caught a bullet in the first moments, but the life in her is winning against the wound.
Only now does Sylvia finally release the Russian. She wriggles out from under him, leaving the body a limp mound of dead tissue. How long has it been? A minute? Maybe more? She was taking no chances.
On the stairs, Gold-Silk clutches her bleeding arms and gawks at the constellation of corpses spread through her home. Her wavering croons aren’t weeping, they’re worse: the sounds of her heart besieged by a reality too harsh to let in and too strong to keep out. Sympathy moves in my chest like a snake but even as I watch, the green anima from the temple memory flows below her skin and the wound in her back closes, pushing back veins of white.
“Everywhere water and glass,” Jenny says. “Neon aint nothing.” She runs one hand along my collar bone.
“Careful,” I say. “Don’t look too hard or you’ll slip into madness. Stay in your body. Stay with me. Focus on the sensations of flesh and blood, the things that make you feel alive. The sight will fade.”
Jenny takes a couple of quick breaths and then leans back to look into my face. The green is gone from her eyes.
Her irises are a depthless blizzard of whirling white.
“I didn’t believe you,” she murmurs. “This is what you see?”
I don’t have any words and there are tears running down my face, so I put my arms around her and hold on.
“Welcome to the circus,” I say.
“Ahem,” the voice is Tellerhorn.
We both turn his way. Jenny groans and closes her eyes, holding the coat for balance. I look for Tellerhorn in the lotus room, but my eyes don’t quite make it that far.
Sylvia stands half up the stairs. Blank eyes lock to Jenny and her hands work into and out of fists, but her features seem sunken, as though the outline of her face were a thin film over a deep drop.
“What?” Her voice is a wind outside her.
“What is this trick?”
“No trick,” I tell her, “The heros you gave me brought me back. I did the same for her.”
Her eyes focus past us and she doesn’t seem to understand. “Heros?”
“Leụ̄xd. You gave me a dose in Chicago,” I supply, helpfully. It strikes me that the word means blood in thai. The blood of the diamond. Or maybe the blood of the thing in the diamond. A shudder runs up my spine. I guess that makes me a blood drinker.
“But you died.” The words are a whispered recollection, but she takes a small step toward us. “Not a dream. Here. How? The what? Blood? It can’t have.”
The dark behind her eyes stirs with the outlines of memory.
“You didn’t know the heros would bring me back?” I gawk, feeling that piece of information rattle around my head like a loose ball bearing. “I thought that was why you did it.”
Jenny lifts her head from my coat and turns toward her sister.
“Sylvia?” she says and her voice climbs an octave mid word.
“Jenny,” answers the older, and swallows. She brushes at her hands, her lips and then at her coat. The blood doesn’t come off, but that hollowness in her features fades as the well carved by the diamond’s light floods with color.
Jenny takes a step toward her sister and raises one hand palm up. Half down the stairs, Sylvia stares at it with her mouth open.
“Hey,” says Jenny, and her smile shines.
Sylvia reaches to touch that hand, but stops mid-air. The wrappings on her wrist have come apart and hang like flags, marbled scarlet and maroon. Her knuckles, deformed by the calluses of striking and being struck, are covered in a cracked plaster of drying blood that isn’t hers.
Staring at her own hand, Sylvia withdraws it.
The wind over the eves of the temple makes a low moan, accompanied by the rushing of rain and counterpoint to the chorus of the wounded and dying who litter the hall.
“Sylvia,” I say, “It’s over. We can take you home.”
“Sylvia?” It’s the big German’s voice. He’s sat down at the throne’s feet. The girl he carried leans against his back, watching us through worried eyes and clutching her pistol in both hands. “That is your name?”
Sylvia studies the stairs. Her eyes turn away. ‘It was.’ Her voice is more distant than the rain.
The armored woman taps her spear against the floor. It sounds like a clock. She’s come around the outer level to stand near us, watching. Her armor blocks my vision of her aura but there’s a lot of blood on that armor and I can’t tell if it’s hers. She speaks at Sylvia in thai but too rapidly for me to follow.
Sylvia’s stare seems endless. ‘Yes,’ she answers the bronze woman. ‘I will.’
Sylvia moves down the stairs and across the lotus room to a closet concealed near the door. In that room and around the outer level a small handful of the wounded have gathered their rainbow memories about them and risen. They make their slow ways toward the throne, moving carefully among the luckless. Each cradles injuries ranging from grim to severe. In them I see the power of the temple’s spirit working to knit their flesh with the threads of their own anima. Drydus tries to rise to go too, but the girl he carried stops him and puts her pistol in his hands.
‘I return this to you,’ she says. ‘It was not yours to give.’ Then she goes down to help the others, leaving Drydus staring at the colt in his hands.
“What’s happening?” Jenny whispers to me.
“Party’s over,” I tell her, but a low rumble of thunder and the groan of something shifting deep underground make me add: “I think. I hope.”
The temple echoes with the moans of the unfortunate. They lay on every surface, spread limbed or curled about their wounds. Their bodies make pictograms of pain and suffering.
Tellerhorn’s low, reverent voice speaks as though carving words into the living air: “Behold the consequence of Agafya’s ambition. I am left wondering why he did it? What were his aims, Mark? Do you know? It seemed to me he hungered for power, but in my experience it is seldom so simple.”
“I don’t know. Of his past, I’ve seen only that he came from someplace cold and far away. I think perhaps he was once a guardian, or a descendent of the guardians, of the temple ruins you found in the artic.”
“You think so? It’s a long walk from there to here.”
Jenny’s eyes turn from Tellerhorn to me, to Agafya’s corpse. The wheels spin in her head, but she doesn’t speak. The Doctor nods once as if reaching a decision, then moves past us down the stairs, headed to help the injured.
The fires of white and anima in the temple structure have all but ended. A haze of moving pale hangs in the air and tendrils of it wander among those wounded bodies as if searching for something to grab onto. As the wounded die, the white may yet take them. I’m not sure what that would mean, but more hollow-faced corpses seems likely.
“I don’t know about any of that.” Jenny shudders as she speaks, but still manages a note of annoyance. “But do you see? There’s a- a presence. Something’s trying to come through.”
“Come through what?” I ask her, watching her face as those whirling white eyes search the air of the lotus room.
“Here,” she says. “It’s like the whole world is a stained glass window letting in the sun, but, there’s something outside it pushing on panes, trying to get in.”