I feel the pains, count my burning breaths, and take stock.
Shattered hip is a lace of uncomfortable sensations as bits of bone rub together. Every movement shoots a lattice of frayed agonies up my chest and down my leg. A sympathetic pain pushes against the side of my skull. Torn skin at the entry and exit wounds stings, but I’m not bleeding very badly.
Bad problems. Very bad. I might never walk again. But not the worst kind of problem; I’m not dead. Yet.
“It was a good plan,” I say to the void, and it echoes back in my own voice. “It was a good plan.”
“Goodby good plan, hello dark.”
That too bounces around and around.
Maya grunts in quiet concentration. Her chains clink. Cloth rustles.
The echoes of my voice chase each other to silence.
“Ha!” Though thin and nearly broken, triumph underlines her one syllable.
Bare feet tap across the stone. A hand slides under my neck and something cold and metal presses to my lips. Reflexively I try to grasp at whoever leans over me. My fingers touch sweat-soaked skin and come away sticky with cold blood still wet.
“Drink,” she rasps.
“How did you get free?”
“Drink,” she tries again, pressing the same rim to my lips.
I bite the metal. As soft as gold. I saw no other vessel but the one which held heros.
“No! You healed Drydus,” I speak through clenched teeth, but she doesn’t try to force the fluid into me. “You healed me before, not with that!”
The metal rim retreats from my lips and her sigh echoes.
“My power is laid waste,” she whispers, and her hands fall against my chest. “I am spent, spun thin, and spare.”
“How did you get free?” I ask again.
“Coat covered me,” she answers. “Covered a mirror.”
Her cheek touches my chest. It’s such a familiar gesture, so trusting and intimate, that it makes my skin crawl with discomfort. Her breath tickles my throat and her knees touch my rib and thigh. I’m not accustomed to being touched by strangers. I don’t like it.
“Drink the heros.” Her voice is a distant wind. “The diamond flies away and the deathless gods will soon be free. Drink! Get up! We must go to war.”
“Sorry.” The volume of my voice startles me. “Sorry did you say… what did you just say? Did you just tell me the stone is a prison?”
“I am a liar,” she answers. “I am all that there is of lies. Trust your own eyes. Look inside. What is the stone? What did you see?”
“Death,” I answer. “In that stone is a death that moves – the same I see marring the auras of things, activated by my will and touch. It is white, and empty, and a sort of premonition of decay. I can conjure it, but it lives in the diamond.”
Arms cooled by sweat coil weakly about my neck and she drags herself close. Her breath wets my ear as she whispers: “Kalagni it is called, the time-fire. It burns one instant below. The world, cosmos, illusion of reality, all are consumed. It is absolute. Time is a fire, one moment behind-”
“Right I see that but I feel strongly that I am bleeding.” The blood from my hip has reached my neck. It’s warm. Her arms aren’t. “Can you fix this hip? Name your price.”
The closeness of her, sticky with her cool blood and smelling strongly of lotus musk and mold, is underscored by the furnace of my pain.
Her wandering touch finds the bullet hole and circles it. “Pain is the price, and self-knowledge. When you were nothing you drank the diamond’s power and on your blank page, the diamond was written. You must know yourself. What did you see in the diamond beside the death you fear?”
I bite my lip and force shallow breaths against the pain. She prods the gunshot wound with a fingertip.
“Blue!” I grunt. “Some kind of many-colored power wrapped around the white. Also, possibly, a whole other world. Say that stings a bit, would you cut it out?”
“What is the blue-and-rainbow hue?” she asks and pinches something that makes my leg tingle and twitch.
I grit my teeth and try to catch her wrist, but it’s like grabbing a steel cable under tension and immediately she bites my shoulder. Her sharp teeth sting. I let her go.
Her fingers move in my wound like worms and regain their pinch of flesh. She hisses with cold breath in my ear: “This is the price! What is the shell to hold the fires of time? Name it!”
With tears running down my cheeks, I try to meditate on what I know, working against the lotus-stink of her and the cooking-fire-pain in my body. Finally I grind out: “In Latin the difference between what is dead and what is alive is called ‘Animus.’ It means memory, mind, emotions, heart, soul and movement. It means life. The blue is animus? Memory-stuff?”
“Yes,” her whisper sounds like a child nearly asleep, and her mouth rests near my ear, but her finger remains in the bullet hole like a stinging scorpion. “Jeeva is my word, but anumus will do. Do you begin to understand? The diamond is Jeeva and full of Kalagni, a well, made of anima, full of time-fire.”
“The diamond is a prison to contain the time-fire?”
“Can the fires of time be contained? What then would burn behind us even now, consuming each second when it passes? A well is not a prison for water – but a way to reach where the water waits. But this diamond is a prison, yes. It holds enemies I will not name, sunk into the kalagni long ago and bound there by the diamond’s walls so that they might burn for eternity.”
Sleep drags at my will. Her fingers twist and shiver things not meant to move. The pain opens my eyes even though there’s nothing to see.
“You must choose.” Her whisper ripples about. “They boiled my stone, my jeeva, and blend me with the kalagni that leaks out. The result is this abomination you call heros. Equal parts anima and end, the anima returns you your memory, the time-fire your motion and your weapons.”
In the silence that lingers I say finally: “So I’m a sort of yin-yang of time-fire and memory?”
“Yes. You exist in the balance of these two forces, and they are opposed. Seek one and you will lose the other.”
A terrible boom shreds the deep silence of the cave, leaving a bullying crackle of echoes. It takes my ringing ears a moment to decipher the sound of a gun, fired from beyond the cave’s far end.
Brass must have encountered the hollows on his way out.
Maya’s whisper gains no urgency. Her forehead touches my temple, her finger twists in my wound, and she singsongs: “Do you understand the price? Give me some of your anima and I will use it to heal you.”
“But that’ll upset my balance.” I strain aching ears to hear as the faint whisper of footsteps taunt from strange directions impossible to trace. “What will happen to me if I give you anima?”
“Agony in imbalance. Kalagni will overcome your spirit and you will see such hurt and harm as only gods can know.” Her arm behind my neck curls to bring the jug of heros against my lips again. “Or you could drink the last of this. It will heal you, retain your balance, and grant you more and more power.”
The footsteps seem to be getting louder, but I can’t tell for sure. Maybe that’s a trick of my mind. “So my options are drink this heros or serious torment.”
“Choose swiftly, Summanus. Agafya will soon catch the lamed thief and take back the diamond. He will pull from it and it from him. What is a prison will become a door. If the prisoner is freed, then there shall come again a war we cannot win. The dreams of men will fail and the great dream end.”
“At least I’d get a good night’s sleep.”
She doesn’t answer my quip, but lays still, breathing deeply, and in the rise and fall of her breath I can feel no heart beating.
“I take it if you can’t heal me you can’t resurrect someone?”
The dialogue seems to have exhausted her. For a long few breaths, she says nothing.
“Aw hell,” I tell her. “I’ve lived with pain, if that’s the cost. Take some of my memory, I have enough. Take some for yourself too. Take a few of the times my father beat me. You can have those, I don’t need them. And all of the Catholic school bits, never liked those. Take whatever you want, but leave me Jenny. Leave me Sylvia. I still have work to do.”
Distorted echoes of another gunshot play the domed cave like a drum. She moves, and her cooling sweat peels between us as the arm under my neck slithers away. Her lips touch the wound on my hip and deep things go out of me in a cold shiver. Memories flash and pop like fireworks: a kiss from a girl I no longer recognize. The touch of my mother’s hand on my head, I was so young. A second story window in the house across the street from my school, and a crooner singing some high song in a gramphone’s breathy wheeze. A flood of dancing moments in Manhattan: boxing, wandering, lovemaking, and life. These thoughts and others slither impossibly down my spine and organs and out past her lips. In the dark where the memories were, the white empty rises like lightning in the night. It coils through me. I am an end.
She blows my own anima back into me but changed – the blue billows past the gap in my flesh, brushing back the pain as dust is thrown before a wind. The aches in my hip and gut subside, the beating throb in my knees falls silent, and my breath returns in a rush.
The golden pitcher presses against my palm and her cool fingers close mine around its neck with a renewed strength.
Her breath tickles my cheek. “Thank you, Summanus, for this power. Ready yourself if you can. All things rebel against their end, and you shall soon see the shape of your fate.”
She leaves like a gust of wind.
I sit up. Nerves jingle with buzzing energy but my muscles and bones ache with exhaustion. A steady breath of cold air blows from the well. It shivers my bare back and chest, makes the hairs on my legs stand up. What’s left of my skivvies is damp with my blood, and unsuitable for burning in the silver bowl. I toss that rank cloth aside and stand naked in the perfect dark.
Heros, collected. Spirit, freed.
My plan was looking pretty shaky there for a minute.
Now it’s time for the hard part.
I find my way to the mirrors and Brass’s jacket, fallen where the laughing girl dropped it.
What a thing to do. He didn’t try and let her out of her trap. He didn’t do what she begged him to, or even listen to her opinion, but he did cover her with his coat.
Well it’s my coat now.
It’s pleasantly clean, even with the mud staining its outside. High quality oiled canvas, lined with sheepskin. I like it. In the pocket is a lighter. Swanky.
The candle-flame blows back the dark.
The stone of the walls, the gold ore, the dust motes in the air, even in the air itself, wind through with the marks of eventual decay – stinging sigils in seething white which write again and again: Every form will end, every figure shatter, every light fade, every life end, and every day will die.
Glass and iron, stone, mirror, blood, and breathe – all shapes – promise annihilation. There is nothing solid, nothing sure, and nothing that will endure.
A fundamental assumption underpins the ability to function in the world, of the permanence of things, their reliability, that the walls, floor, ceiling, other people, and all objects of perception exist and will remain, moment to moment.
I see the truth. They will not.
Certainty vanishes, snuffed in the fell light of time’s fire, and with its going my legs crumple and fall into a wheeling wind.
Cold stone cracks and cuts beneath me.
The stone breaks. It and all things. Every piece of every surface.
The pain she promised is called despair.