The dog’s door in the fighting pit is on the other side of the huge hound. It opens into a short tunnel and some dark room beyond, probably a kennel, likely a cage.
But it’s that or fight all of them, and the moving death that fills their veins fills mine with terror.
The empty faces surge close and grasping hands reach. I turn and leap into the pit, over the hound which looks up to snap at me too late.
I land on the sand, take one running step toward the dog-door, and do my best impression of a baseball runner sliding into third base. The hound’s gate passes over me and hard wood speckled with sand grates my gut, tugging at my pants as they catch against a nail-head. I slide to a halt, scraped and probably bleeding, inches from where the ground drops away to a stone and mortar floor. I roll off that ledge and land on my knees and toes with a hard knock that makes my bruises sing.
The dark stinks of rot. I kneel in the feted hay and mud of a dog’s cage. I hope its mud. It’s not mud.
The hound barks and running feet shake dust from the ceiling. The dog’s teeth find something wet.
I wait for my eyes to adjust to the night.
My hand aches where I hit the dog man. The bites he left burn with what might be poison. The baying of the hound, thud of feet, and grunts of the fighting hollow-faces echo all around me as the dark slowly gives way to my eyes, but also a new sound: a whimper of distant crying.
Bars of thick bamboo set in ornate bronze frames make up three walls, and the fourth at my back is stone with a tunnel halfway up it leading to the open door and the pit where the hound barks and lunges, fending hollows back from its meal.
In the bamboo wall opposite that tunnel stands a narrow gate with a simple wooden latch. The room stinks of dog waste.
The simple latch opens the gate, and beyond it spreads a long, low space, stretching away into shadow. I step out of the cage and close it behind me.
A dog barks in my ear, crazed and hungry. I twist toward it, ready to defend myself, and see only foaming lips and shining teeth. A stumbled step backward brings my bare foot down on something mushroom like, at once hard and spongy soft. The shining teeth are blocked by bars – a cage next to the one I’ve come through.
Other dogs yelp and snarl. Other teeth and eyes flash in the dark. The pit at the center of Bitter Flower is surrounded by cages, and many of the cages have dogs in them. Some protest, others pace watching, and still others lay in their cages bloated with gluttonous ecstasy and surrounded by fresh carcasses.
It must surely be so dark down here that a normal eye would be blind, but I am not. Though the dark is deep, I can see the shapes of the bamboo bars which separate each cage from the other, the rusted wheels those cages are set on, the dirt of the floor, the sigils wrapped around each pillar, and the empty eye-sockets of skulls watching me from here and there on the floor.
The thing which squished under my foot is a bone. It looks like a human shin bone.
Dozens of bodies’ worth of bones carpet a room wider and deeper than the light reaches.
Somewhere out in that dark, someone’s crying. A girl’s voice echoes among the pillars. The weeping verges on terrified panic, sobs of distress like someone with a cramped leg on the edge of a cliff, then calms.
The bones are rotten, decaying, and as I stare around me, I notice something else: they’re still alive. Not with the winding ribbons of that white power which contaminates the hollows, but with actual green life.
My heart decides to climb out my ears, but I crouch, holding my breath.
The life in the bones must have some kind of memory, something to tell me what they are, or what might wake them from whatever sleep they linger in. Looking close, staring at a rib-bone broken and covered in mold, no memories suggest themselves. I look deeper, reach out for that moment of soaring confidence I felt in Ayutthaya, but it seems too many miles away.
But it isn’t the bone that’s alive, it’s the mold. The bones are decaying under a blanket of something green, luminous to my second sight, fed by the hay and manure from the dog pits. Even the rot in the hay is alive. My sight opens. Fragments of broken memories float around the bones, slowly subsumed by the moss and rot, slowly becoming something new. The smells around me are a bouquet of rebirth.
But that doesn’t make them pleasant.
A whisper sounds deep in the room. Maybe a footfall?
I stay crouching, listening hard.
From the pit other sounds come: The hound snarls and pounces.
I spin to look back past the bars and the dog door I entered by. In the pit, the dog overbears one of the hollows: a man in a clean military uniform which splatters red as the dog’s teeth snap his neck.
Others close tight around the hound. As it spins, snarling, they reach for it. Another pounce, this time an arm breaks in his maw like a twig clenched in a fist, but the others close hands in his fur and he’s lifted from his feet.
He writhes and tears free, barking and snarling so saliva flows from his bloodied jaws. His mere weight throws another to the ground, a faceless lady in shredded silks. His teeth close on her head and tear off a dinner-plate sized flag of skin. But the hollow empty doesn’t change despite the sudden flow of wet from around it. The doubly faceless lady presses that hollow to his cheek, and though he worries at her shoulder, many other hands close in his fur and hold him. The bleeding lady-corpse wraps red arms around the beast’s neck and presses the empty where its face once was to the hound’s eye. The dog relaxes, settling its weight. The hollow thing’s body arches, shivering with pain or ecstasy and the dog spasms in a fit as green life and memory pour out of the hound and down the depthless space of the hollow. Then others around close in, lower their maws toward the dog, and block my view.
I back away. The other dogs bark like the world’s ending.
Jenny will be alright. She won’t become one of them. It wasn’t spreading. That power of Agafya’s which made these things wasn’t in Jenny.
I don’t want to think about that, or what the faceless ones are doing to the dog. They didn’t show any interest in her. Hopefully, that will hold until I can return to retrieve her by some other rout.
There’s no way to go but deeper. I set out into the bone room in that direction, picking my way barefoot across the grizzly terrain.
My feet touch wet, decaying things in the dark.
Past the fourth row of pillars the shadows open their doors again, as a yellow radiance creeps from the teeth of some kind of stove.
I approach this light carefully, mindful of my step and the nameless living things growing under my feet.
At the end of the bone room a huge bronze boiler squats against the wall of an alcove like a small room. The steady orange glow from the boiler’s grated mouth spills into the dark, illuminating an open door in the middle of an intricately carved wall. The smell of alcohol hits me: potent enough to turn my head and make my eyes water. I swallow and approach the wall.
At the top of the artwork a long arch holds shapes like characters, akin to sheet music, but all overlapping. This fades in the middle space to figures of archers, spearmen, chariots, and gods all locked in combat playing out on a field of corpses which extends to the relief’s bottom. Hanging open on well-concealed hinges in the center of this carving is the door, and that slab of stone bears the image of a round gem in a constellation of serpents.
Around the door’s base like guards by the gates of a sacked citadel are the bodies of half a hundred dead monkeys. Their golden fur glows in the red light.
The crying voice echoes from beyond that gaping door. Light from the stove doesn’t penetrate there. It’s a tunnel, long, empty, and very black. As I stand, the inarticulate suffering in the voice shifts to screaming frustration, then anger, and then the weeping resumes with a lilting hysteria.
But it’s too dark. I’m not so foolish as to advance without a light.
The stove glows a deep red, but its light is from coals and I’ll need something to carry them in. An oddity in what I’m seeing takes a moment to interpret: moving white lines on the ceiling are either an artifact of my sight or from a second light source.
Above the stove a frame of pipes rises like a strange spider-web, holding an odd contraption – two bowls, one above the other. The upper bowl and the larger of the two is the size of a helmet and glints with the white of solid silver. The lower is large enough to fit my doubled fists, and burns with that brilliance unique to burnished gold. A pipe welded onto the silver bowl below its lip angles to drip into the gold bowl. The light comes from the contents of the silver one: a white radiance shines thin lines across the ceiling, as though its source were under a layer of clear water.
I have to stand on my tiptoes to peer into that silver vessel, and the sight inside knocks me to my knees.
The muscles of my body ache, and I count my breaths. Pain from the bullet bite tells me I’m not dreaming. Itching skin reminds me I’m still in the same body that went shirtless to Ayutthaya and floated down a river. Fatigue on the edge of exhaustion makes my hands and shoulders like led. No, what I saw in the bowl shouldn’t surprise me. Nothing should surprise me now.
I rise to peer inside again. The sight is the same – not a trick of my eyes, but present. I’m not looking past the real. Not on purpose anyway. A surface of liquid so clear its contours are almost invisible acts as a veil. Beneath those tiny ripples expands a black night, speckled with points of light at impossible, immense, distance. Cradled in the dark hand of that sky lays a luminous globe, marbled blue and white and wrapped in gauzy clouds. That sphere seems to carry continents and oceans, but if that’s what they are, they’re not the familiar shapes of any map I’ve ever seen.
The globe opens an eyelid and its white eye sees me.