“That’s probably bad,” I say, and let go of her. “I should help Sylvia-” I start toward the lotus room but the black painted eyes of the bronze woman arrest my movement. She doesn’t block my path, but her attention stays me. For a moment it seems she wants to say something, but instead she turns away to crouch by Gold Silk’s side. She strokes the girl’s shoulder and whispers words which sound both gentle and kind.
Sylvia has emerged from the closet carrying an elaborate wooden box.
A distant rumbling is growing closer. Like we’re too close to an approaching train. It’s an odd sound. I can’t place it.
Pointing at the armored woman, I ask Drydus: “What’s her name?”
“Pensri,” he says, and then levers himself to his feet. “Maya says we should move zhe stone back to its cage.”
I nod. “Seems like a good idea.”
Jenny’s watching Sylvia through slit eyes. Sylvia has opened the box she carried into a kind of folding, velvet-lined table. Her practiced hands use the tools there to prepare something drawn from in the box. The tools are a small fire, a tiny golden cup, and a bundle of many syringes.
“What’s she doing?” Jenny asks.
“Looks like she’s prepping heroine,” I say. “By the size of the doses, for the ones we can’t save.”
Jenny’s eyes widen. “Oh,” she says. “She probably doesn’t want our help.”
“Not with that,” I agree.
We sit down. The narrow stairs aren’t a perfect chair, but it’s nice to rest.
Some of the survivors move past us toward the throne. Tellerhorn approaches. “I wish I were the other kind of doctor,” he says as he removes his saber from his belt so he can sit. “There are no minor wounds. I watched the nicks and cuts close, right before my eyes. The worse wounds were improving as well, but it seems to have stopped. I’m Dr. Earnest Tellerhorn, by the way, antiquarian and friend of Mark’s.”
“Are you?” I ask.
He offers his hand palm up but Jenny shakes it. “Jennifer Rubicon,” she says. “Hi.”
“Hello.” He rests his chin on his curved weapon’s hilt. “Hell of a day.”
“I’m sorry I missed it.” Jenny turns her eyes to search among the wounded.
“So one more little riddle,” The Doctor manages a frown of concentration. His tired eyes glint behind cracked glasses. “Agafya seems to have written something in his own blood. Two sigils. An old script. I wonder what you make of them.”
“I doubt I can read them, but I’ll try,” I gather my strength to stand.
“No need. It’s Bone Script, a very old Chinese pictographic alphabet. He wrote: ‘break gem.’ Or possibly ‘end stone’ or ‘end treasure.’ End the stone? What do you make of that?”
Pensri, or Black and White – the bronze woman, as I’ve been calling her, helps Gold Silk down the stairs. The younger woman cradles the diamond, still wrapped in the gold of her silk.
Drydus walks unsteadily out to meet Sylvia. She hands him a bundle of syringes.
“End the stone?” My own words float in my head, unmoored, meandering.
“The dreaming diamond?” Asks Jenny. “He wanted to end it? Obviously not.”
Tellerhorn bounces one finger against the air, as if at a clever question from a student. “He was very interested in how we made the heros, and he seemed quite surprised -and delighted- to discover we could dissolve the diamond. I assumed it was because heros is so useful, but I wonder if I didn’t misinterpret… I valued heros. He valued… a way to destroy the diamond?”
I watch as Drydus and Sylvia go among the dying. With each stop, the chorus quiets by one note.
I turn away, but Jenny’s transfixed. Her whirling eyes are endless. The scar in her forehead seems to shine. Behind us, the survivors cluster near the throne. They lay against it so their bodies are like the roots of the tree. On that throne, the Laughing Girl sits with her knees drawn to her chest and her bald head laid back. She seems thinner even than before, like a famine victim. Though her body is diminished and the knuckles of her hands clutch at her own ankles with vanishing strength, her sweat seems to shine with black rainbows like the feathers of a peacock and in her aura I see a power like the hint of a distant dawn.
She opens her eyes to regard me and then nods.
“Hmm,” voices Tellerhorn as he watches Pensri and Gold-Silk. “You don’t suppose… you don’t suppose he did all this to destroy it, do you? Why would he want to?”
The Gold-Silk girl sits on the edge of the pit, but the woman in bronze has paused in helping her toward the dog door. Both of them tilt their heads. In the outer circle Drydus straightens up, frowning.
Tellerhorn turns to me. “Mark, why would Agafya want to destroy the diamond?”
Above and to the left of the door, Sylvia holds a young woman in a tight embrace as that voice slowly ends. A spent needle lays by her knee.
With her ear turned toward the door and listening hard, Pensri bounds out of the pit as if her armor were cotton fluff. She creeps to the open door.
Gold-Silk curls up about the diamond, her wide eyes focus on the open doorway.
“What is it?” I ask as the metal grinding that’s been growing louder shifts in intensity to a roar.
Jenny’s eyes widen. “Tanks,” she says. “Did you solve the tank problem?”
Tellerhorn and I both look to her. Brass, who’s sitting a few steps down from us and had been resting his eyes, opens them to turn toward Jenny.
“Army tanks?” He asks.
The front door explodes.
The blast pops both my ears. It sends an opaque cloud of dust and stone billowing from the doorway to cover Pensri like a tidal wave. Shrapnel stings my face. Gold-silk startles as a dozen holes open in her back. She raises both hands to her eyes, but the sound her lips form doesn’t reach my ears.
“Sylvia!” I can’t hear my own shout as I try to rise, but Sylvia’s already moving, setting down her grim burden to try to reach her feet.
A second shell strikes the temple’s outer wall on the upper level, spreading more stone and dust. Sylvia vanishes behind a wall of smoke. Roof tiles pour into the lotus room like rain.
“Mark,” Tellerhorn catches my arm as I start toward where she was. He points with his sword.
“That,” he says. “That is happening.”
Agafya has sat up. His face is hollow, but wormed through with veins of light. He raises a hand and against the thunder of another shell hitting the outer wall, that veil of moving empty which had hung in the air blossoms into rivers of white.
Those rivers rush over Gold Silk’s lap as if they were water. The girl grips her silk in both hands but the fabric tears and the flows sweep the diamond from her grasp to carry it, swift as a leaf on a fast river, into Agafya’s upturned palm. His fingers close around it and a great depth opens inside, from which pit the whirling white flows in a rush.
“Gun!” Jenny shouts. “I need a gun!”
Drydus runs toward us, his huge feet unsteady among the terrain of bodies. The gold-silk girl has fallen into the pit, leaving behind a bloody smear. Pensri jumps in after her.
Another shell hits the wall, and then another. Each blast chokes the air with dust and sprays stinging pebbles against my face and hands. Jenny’s left my side. Those of us near the throne crouch and cover our eyes.
Through stinging eyes and ringing ears, I watch Agafya lift the diamond in cupped hands as if it were a drink of water. As it comes to his chin, a new face rises from the deep hole inside him. It isn’t his face. Pale lips twist over sharp teeth and the dark ruddiness of Agafya’s skin gives way to something as smooth and poreless as porcelain.
‘Too late it’s too late,’ comes the moan from behind me, from the spirit or one of the others I can’t tell.
The thing wearing Agafya’s body stands up, shrugs its shoulders and examines its hairy muscles as one might examine a new set of clothes. I start to rise, but another explosion rocks the walls and the whole far side of the roof collapses in a thundering torrent of tile and stone. The bronze bowl which hung from that ceiling crashes to the pit like a huge gong and fire rises from its spilled guts in a great, brilliant mushroom cloud.
The bronze woman dives out of that torrent with Gold Silk cradled in her arms and her armor smoking. She rolls to her knees beside the pit and crawls forward as tiles crash down around her. Blood pours from both her ears and her hands are unsteady where they clutch the girl’s still form.
Unheeding of the sound or fury, whatever wears Agafya passes huge hands over its chest and stomach. Fat and hair slough off under its fingers like water wiped from a window. They splatter on the floor in a horrid mess, leaving behind perfect unblemished skin over Agafya’s massive muscles. Bones pop and shift under that touch, groaning like ice in spring. The waist thins, the shoulders and belly ripple. All the coiled beard and waving hair are torn away and the body’s sex falls to the wet muck on the floor.
The smell of rain rides a cold wind through the huge gap in the roof, churning the potent fire in the pit and spreading the stench of dust and death.
The guns fall silent, but even through the ringing in my ears and the roar of sudden fire, I can hear the shouts from outside as the weapons are reloaded. What remains of Agafya’s corpse is a beautiful sculpture of androgynous power unblemished by dust or stone. It is hairless, sexless, white as a winter night and towering all of Agafya’s two-and-a-half-meter height. The diamond’s light wraps around it like a cloak and the phantom face stretches its lips, baring hooked teeth. The lips of flesh follow, a fraction of a moment behind. Then, like a wisp of sunlit smoke, it rises out the open roof and is gone, taking the diamond with it.