Natural stone glitters in the light from my bowl as a strip of cloth flickers and dies down – frozen warps and undulations of rock fade to indistinct shapes.
I continue moving in orange coal-light that just makes the shadows blacker. The passage is crooked and winding, but the floor has been carved smooth even where I have to bend, sway or lean against the wall to continue. It’s a chore to keep the heavy bowl upright in such spots, but if I drop the coals things will not go well.
Veins of gold shimmer in the walls, and mica, and a dribble of damp makes the layered stone shine.
My footsteps echo so it seems there is a second person in the cleft with me. I pause and listen, and though the sounds fade, I’m still half-convinced I’m not alone.
It’s hard to measure distances in such places, but the passage extends about twenty or thirty yards, sloping downward.
Then the walls open outward, depositing me on a floor of solid stone in a room of unknown size. The floor in this new space is carved in overlapping circles, in which design fills every part, but the light cannot reveal the whole.
I feed the coals with another strip of cloth and breathe on them so it flares. The dark draws back.
A dome of glittering gold ore hangs twenty yards above a round floor worked with marvelous glyphs in swooping circles of gold, silver and precious gems, all set about a well at its heart, with spiraling stairs descending steeply into black. Every surface shimmers in iridescent brilliance except the well, which almost oozes its dark.
But these things pass my mind like figures on a train at night, because the room holds also the weeping woman.
A huge mirror, easily two meters to a side, lays flat on the ground, facing another suspended from a metal frame by lengths of rope. On the floor around the two mirrors sits a loop of iron chain, encircling four huge nails driven into the stone floor by some enormous strength. From the nails extend four manacles, binding the wrists and ankles of the one whom I had called the Laughing Girl.
Maya, the dancing musician, she of the lilting laugh.
She’s naked and bound face down against the mirror. Tears wet her bare head and neck, and speckle the glass around her like stars. Whip wounds crisscross her back like the raking claw marks of a huge cat, but the cracked and oozing scabs on the wounds aren’t the red of human blood, but instead ivory-white like liquid pearl.
The movement of her arms and legs leaves a snow-angel-like smear of white on the mirror beneath her. Though each breath mewls, she continues to twist and pull against her bindings. At her wrists and ankles, where her skin bruises against the metal, tiny slivers of some sapphire energy run like falling stars onto the mirror’s face. But instead of striking glass, those drops of light plummet into it as if down a great distance, only to emerge a moment later as curls of rainbow-hued mist from the glass above on the ceiling.
Two steps toward her, already searching for weaknesses in the iron bands so I might break them, her whisper stays me:Deeps
“Stop. Stay back.”
Her voice is so thin I can barely hear it – strained by too many hours weeping.
“I mean to free you,” I say.
Something crunches under my feet. I’ve stepped on a peacock feather.
She opens her red-rimmed eyes and tries to turn them toward me, but she can’t seem to tear her gaze from the mirror. For a moment her will is tested, then with a muted sound of desperation she plunges into the glass surface as though it were still water. The mirror above ripples, and parts of her emerge from it. The chains pull taught. Frustration and pain claw at her throat as she writhes against the metal bands that hold her. Then with a surge and bunching of muscle she pulls herself back by the chains until she emerges again from the mirror. It doesn’t immediately support her weight. She has to thrash and claw at it, like it were very thin ice. Rattling chains and her panting whine are the only sounds. Then, somehow, she’s out and rests again against the solid face of the glass.
I can’t articulate my thoughts, but I try to gather them. I can see no weakness in the manacles which bind her wrists and ankles, which is odd. The sight may be capricious but I can usually see the mars when I look for them. Not here. I haven’t even got any cloth to cover her nakedness.
“What’s happening here?” I whisper.
She raises one weary hand and the manacle groans like a bridge about to collapse.
‘Who’s there?’ She whispers in Thai and an accent it takes me a moment to work out.
“You called me white-eyes,” I answer in English, which I know she’s spoken. “But I would call myself Summanus.”
‘Summanus,’ she whispers, ‘You call me Kanyasuhaasina.’
Kanya is the Sanskrit word for ‘girl.’ ‘Suhaasina’ means roughly ‘laughing.’ How I know this, I’m not sure. Sanskrit is not a language I have studied.
I rest my hands on the stone outside the circle.
“Hello Kanyasuhaasina. You sent me to Ayuttaha, do you remember-”
She opens her eyes to look at me and instead they’re drawn into the mirror. She falls in after them. I step back as she struggles to pull herself free. By the time she’s managed it, she’s sobbing again.
“Kanyasuhaasina,” I say, trying to be gentle even in word, “how can I help you? Is there a key?”
“Too late,” she whimpers. “Too late. Flee! Too slow to pity. The seal is broken. The gate is open. Death comes. You are too late.”
“Tell me what to do,” I beg her.
Those words seem to reach her where the others haven’t. Her head, marbled with pearl blood, turns side to side.
“Curse him,” she whispers, “Flay and foil him. He took the stone from its well, from the deep and water vault. He boils death and hopes to live, but the shell weakens and the egg will hatch. He won’t like it then.”
The sounds of footfalls bounce around the domed chamber. For an odd moment I wonder why I’m walking, but I’m not. Someone’s coming. The light in the room has brightened.
There’s only one place to hide – the well. Is this the well she meant? The design on the floor mirrors the design in the temple alter and the passage door; thousands of lines writhe away from the hole.
“You! Free me!” She’s finally seen me. “I will put it back into the well, into the deeps. We will feed its wards with life and living. It will keep another age. Free me so I may find it! Free me or all you know will perish and die. I beg you, who calls himself Summanus.”
I have no friends left who might appear now. Whoever approaches, I will need to fight them, and that means I need at least one hand free.
Heros or light?
I set the pitcher of heros behind the frame which supports the mirror. As I turn around a beam of yellow light sweeps across the floor from the cave mouth to the well, making the golden ore erupt with a cascade of brilliant glittering.
I run for the well and let the diamond slide down my arm until I can catch it in my right hand. The beam of light turns to me as my bare feet skid to a halt at the well’s mouth. I hold the diamond out over the unmeasured drop.
“Hold!” shouts the man behind the light in a Yorkshire brogue.
“No closer,” I answer. “I’ll drop it, and it’s what you’ve come for, I have no doubt.”
I turn to face him and shield my eyes, leaving the bundle with the gem dangling.
Behind the light stands Captain Brass, flashlight in one hand, gun in the other. The light points to the ground, the gun at me. Under his muddy coat his uniform is as pressed and clean as ever. The cast on his leg is obvious, but he seems to be walking on it without the assistance of his cane. The gun is rock solid in his hand.
“Hello,” I say, waving with my pan full of coals.
“Hello,” he answers. “You seem to have gone native. Is the nudity a ritual thing?”
“You’re an ass,” I tell him. “Thanks for all the help.”
“Hmm.” He replies. “I was right behind you. I’d have helped if I’d seen a way.”
“You got past the hollows well enough.”
He shrugs. “You’re an excellent diversion.”
We’re both startled by Maya’s shriek. As his light whips toward her she screams: “Drop it! Drop it white eyes! Yes! Put it back! Put it back and all you dream of will be yours!”
Brass steps sideways out of the doorway to put the wall behind him. The light darts back to me, and the gun stays steady.
“If you drop it, I’ll shoot you,” he announces, loudly enough to be heard, though not as loud as she. “In the head this time, I think. We’ll see if that keeps. Then I’ll have to climb down after it, as I assume has been done before. I’d prefer you handed it over. It would be a lot less work.”
“No!” Croaks the desperate voice of the chained girl, “It’s a prison for a deathless god, walls built of memory and life! You mix the god’s breath into the prison’s power and drink it, you think it gives you strength, but you trade the prison walls for a measure of power and if the walls break, no power will save you! Give the prison back to me! Give it back so I may wind it round with life again-” her desperate cry turns to manic frustration as she tumbles into the glass.
Brass’s light, eyes, and gun stay on me even as the cries of the girl’s struggle bounce from every way. It’s a feat of will to stay so focused. I’m impressed. And angry.
“I don’t understand why you’re resisting me,” Brass says. “Hand it over and we’ll make you more heros. We were friends before, what’s changed?”
“Do you believe the heros grants prophecy? Do you believe in its truth?” I ask him, but when he makes no sign yes or no, I continue: “I have looked into the stone and to my eyes it seems a kind of cage. I believe what she says. What the diamond holds is dangerous, Brass. I think it would be wise to trust these people who’ve been keepers of it for so long. We should learn from them.”
“Yes,” pleads the bound girl from the shadows in a voice like the scratching of branches in a wind. “Heed him! He begins to understand but it is worse even. Keep it in its cage and all my temple will be your reward. Whatever you desire you may have. Give the stone to me!”
The Captain’s face worms with worry and wariness, and his left thumb reaches for his wedding ring despite the flashlight handle. Over his shoulder I see the faint shadow of a woman’s shape, reaching for that hand, but then it’s gone.
“Give me the diamond, Mr. Simmons,” he says. “I’ll consider it a fair trade. They have ours, now I am taking theirs.”
“They were making heros on the stove. You’re not curious why they knew how to do that? The alembic was made from repurposed pots, possibly in the last few hours.” I’m trying to stall. Maybe something will get through.
He shrugs. “I would assume they’ve captured Dr. Tellerhorn. As much as I’d love to affect a rescue, that’s not my mission.” He sighs, and the gun lowers a couple of degrees as he looks over the top of it. “Look, Mark, I don’t dislike you. I’d rather not shoot you, even as I’d rather not climb down that well to recover the diamond. But, if you don’t hand it over, I will do both those things. Do you understand? Let’s be reasonable, and save each-other a lot of unpleasantness.”
“No,” whispers the girl in the chains, like a wind at a cracked window. “no, no, no you foolish man. What do you want? Gold? Fame? Sex? Weapons? They will be yours. It holds will beyond your power. It is no boon to you, not as I might be. Drop it! Take my promises!”
Even as her whispers wind about us, I can feel my resolve failing. If I drop this, he has every capability to follow through with his threat. If I hand it over, I might lose the Laughing Girl’s trust, but on the other hand, she has to understand my position.
I went out my window to try to help Sylvia. Then I tried to help Jenny. Nash shot me before I had a chance to give him what he asked for, but I did my best anyway. I answered all the questions Mitts put to me except for the part Nash asked me not to. I did everything Jenny asked of me too. I gave Nai what he wanted, and I even tried to give Agafya what he asked for, though that didn’t go so well. I answered all of Tellerhorn’s questions and I helped the priest to the best of my power. I gave Jenny my very best. It wasn’t good enough. I’ve rolled over for almost everybody who’s put any kind of pressure on me. It’s funny thinking back on it. I think of myself as pretty tough, and I’ve swung my fists a bit and taken my bruises, but what have I really stood for? And here I am, basically naked, in a cave, with not a whole lot of hope for the future or means toward those ends. Jenny’s dead. Sylvia’s isn’t exactly a friend. It’s me left, and there isn’t much of me.
I’ve been forging forward, but really all I’ve been doing is what people asked of me while clinging to the hope somebody might care. No that’s not it. Not ‘somebody’ in the general case, but somebody in particular: I’ve been hoping Sylvia might care.
Sylvia does not care.
She could have stopped this thing, this diamond, the making of more heros, the binding of Maya. She sided with Agafya.
I don’t feel naked. The weight is not a burden.
My mother named me Summanus. Night Lightning. Bone Breaker. Blood Drinker.
Maybe that’s what I am now. I don’t know. But I will not surrender this to Brass, a man who doesn’t know and cannot understand.
“I don’t care what superstitions these mystics have cobbled together.” He’s saying. “This is the very last time I’ll ask-“
“Yeah fine.” I say, and set the stone on the ground at my feet.
“Thank you for being reasonable.” He blows a kind of half-sigh, on the verge of expressing relief. “Pass it over here and then count to one hundred before you follow me. If you come to the airstrip before the Empire Air flight leaves in the morning, I’ll pay your ticket, and you would be welcome to join me back at Rockwynd. But I don’t trust you near me until we’re out of here. I do beg your pardon. What are you doing?”
“One thing,” I tell him.
I’ve set down my silver bowl and fed the coals with all the rest of my scraps of cloth. As the click of his browning’s hammer hangs in the air, I slide the bowl across the floor toward the chained girl and her mirror trap. It bounces and topples, spilling coals and burning cloth.
The light flares. It falls over Maya, over her chains and mirrors, over her red-rimmed eyes.
“Yes it’s a terrible-” Brass starts.
With a small smile, she falls into the mirror. He looks and then looks again. His eyes widen in shock.
I charge. My feet patter across the stone, much louder than I’d expected. His attention snaps back to me and the red warning billows out, hard and direct. I juke left and duck right. As the gun goes off, I’m reaching for his wrist. The bullet punches my left hip and the leg simply stops supporting me.
I’m down in a whirlpool of pain.
Ears ring so loudly I can’t tell which way is up. Did I hit him? I don’t remember. My leg sheers and shudders under a tangled razor-wire agony lacing out from the splintered hip bone.
Through the cacophony of ringing ears and the echoes of the pistol’s boom, Brass says:
“I wish you wouldn’t have done that. Damn shame.”
I roll onto my back and try to stay the flow of blood. I did not hit him. He’s as intact as before. He limps to the pit’s edge to retrieve the diamond. He weighs it in his hand. Then he peels back the cloth wrapping to get a glimpse inside.
“Bigger than ours.” He says. “Much bigger.”
“Don’t do it, Brass,” I tell him. “I’m telling you, you want to think about this.”
But his attention turns to the chained girl. She’s stretched against the mirror, panting and heaving with the exertion of climbing back out of it.
He holsters his gun and takes off his jacket, pulling the diamond up its sleeve. Then he lays the jacket over her and stands back, with the diamond bundle in his hand.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry I don’t know how to let you out. I haven’t got a hacksaw, or time. I’m sorry.”
I keep talking at him, but nothing I say seems to reach his ears.
At the tunnel mouth he pauses and turns back a moment.
“I’ll still pay your ticket, if you make it to the airport. But you understand I can’t wait. Good luck, anyway.”
His light and the echoes of his limping steps fade together, leaving us in the dark.